Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A (belated?) review of Anna Powell's Deleuze and Horror Film

Anna Powell. Deleuze and Horror Film. Edinburgh University Press, 2005.

The notion that consumers of horror fiction and film are subject to a pathological condition akin to drug addiction has a venerable pedigree; it was an idea that S. T. Coleridge (whose opinion was of course informed by personal knowledge of such a condition) helped to popularize with his influential criticism of horror fictions as “powerful stimulants” in a 1797 review of M. G. Lewis’ infamous novel, The Monk. This analogy remains a stereotype of both popular and academic discourse on horror cinema; consumers and critics devoted to horror film continue to be represented as suffering from a sort of visceral, visual addiction. It is appropriate, then, that the autobiographical tone of Anna Powell’s introduction to her Deleuze and Horror Film comes close to taking on the confessional quality of a recovery narrative.

The intellectual addiction from which Powell admits to recovering is not, however, a crippling “horror film habit”. Rather, Powell’s therapeutic application of Deleuzian theory to horror cinema has allowed her to emerge from the nefarious influence of (in Deleuze and Guattari’s words) “the strange death-cult of psychoanalysis.” No newcomer to critical and philosophical work with horror films, Powell explains that much of her earlier work was preoccupied with Freudo-Lacanian psychoanalytic issues. Deleuze and Horror Film represents her radical departure from this paradigm.

The predominance of psychoanalytic assumptions in theoretical approaches to horror film, as Powell recognizes, verges on the hegemonic. Yet, as she persuasively insists, psychoanalysis is often “an inadequate key to unlock either the multiple levels of horror film, or [our] responses to them” (1), since, like theoretical approaches that privilege “representation and narrative structure,” it “neglect[s] the primacy of corporeal affect” which is so foundational for many horror films, and downplays “the affective dynamic of the films” (2). Deleuzian thought, on the other hand, features a receptivity to the cognitive possibilities of horrific affect, rooted in Deleuze’s development of Hume’s realization that “reasoning is nothing but a species of sensation”, and is thus a promising method of returning horror to its affective roots, which psychoanalytic, narratological, historical and ideological approaches tend to lose, or at least obscure.

The Freudian model of “Mommy, Daddy, Me” has also helped perpetuate the logic of disease which informed Coleridge’s criticism of Gothic fiction over two centuries ago, since, as Powell explains, “[p]sychoanalysis pathologizes horror and psychoanalytic film criticism uses either the text or the viewer as an analysand. It impels viewers to strengthen their ego defenses against the disruptive undermining of the id or the repressive pressure of the super-ego. From a Deleuzian perspective, however, madness in horror may be read in a more positive light. Anomalous states of consciousness in film are celebrated in Deleuze, both for their stylistic innovations and their effect on the audience who participates in the madness by affective contagion” (23).

The book’s first section, “From Psychoanalysis to Schizoanalysis,” opens with a strategic consideration of Hitchcock’s Psycho. In response to the extant preponderance of psychoanalytic readings of this film, Powell contends that such readings reveal “nothing about the film as an aesthetic or visceral experience” (23). In contrast, noting that Psycho is “permeated thematically by schizophrenia and aesthetically by schizoid lines of flight” (24), Powell produces a reading that attends to the numerous aesthetic transformations that the film involves the audience in, including Norman’s (simultaneously pathological and vital) becoming-Animal and becoming-Woman. This brings me to the first of two major problems with this otherwise electrifying book. Powell’s reading of the film, while insightful and provocative, moves so rapidly from point to point in its “rhizomatic” style of connective disjunctions, that her exploration comes to seem frenetic, and at times even perfunctory. Thus, while it usefully opens a line of flight that evades the psychoanalytic dogma that now scaffolds the film, it lacks the sustained development that made Slavoj Zizek’s study of Psycho so incisive and influential.

This rapid pace perhaps results from the fact that Powell’s intentions with Deleuze and Horror Film are so ambitious, since the book is meant to serve as both an intervention in discursive appropriations of horror films, and an attempt to extend Deleuzian thought by widening the range of cinematic works involved in its production of new concepts. Acknowledging that Deleuze himself only rarely engaged directly with “horror films” in the generic sense, Powell explains, “I want to extend the scope of that writing which keeps rigorously to those films actually used as examples by Deleuze himself. I test the use-value of Deleuzian theory to popular formulaic films as well as art-house approved works” (2). Powell therefore applies Deleuze’s conception of cinema as an embodied form of thought both to and through a wide range of horrific cinema. She avoids the notoriously problematic task of attempting or accepting a generic definition of horror, choosing to focus instead on horror as an affective element of the cinematic experience, explaining that “not all my texts fall into a strict generic category, but all contain horrifying material of an uncanny nature” (7).

This approach, while generally productive, evokes the second complaint I have about the book, in that it is often impossible to see Powell’s selection of films as anything other than tendentious. While she aptly links more “canonical” films like Wiene’s Expressionist classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Lewton’s Cat People with both auteurist favorites like Argento’s Suspiria and Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, and more generic fare like Cammell’s Demon Seed and Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street, she too often relies on films, and elements of these films, which are obvious exempla of Deleuzian hybridity.

This occasionally results in readings that verge on the redundant, doing little to either illuminate a viewing of the film, or to advance the potential of Deleuzian thought. Perhaps the most notable example of this tendency is Powell’s frequent recourse to the films of David Cronenberg. Throw a theoretical rock in the general direction of Cronenberg’s corpus, and you are sure to hit an always-already-made example of a Body Without Organs, or a slimily desiring-machinic assemblage ripe for reterritorialization (a fact explainable to a large extent by the tremendous shared investment of French philosopher and Canadian filmmaker in the seminal writings of American author, William S. Burroughs).

Nevertheless, given Deleuze’s not infrequent reliance on “perversely literal embodiments of his own concepts,” that Powell’s project “takes twisted literalization much further” (7) is consistent with this method. In addition, Powell’s vital recognition that “[t]he horror film experience offers a particular quality of thought,” and her diverse and often novel celebration of “the dynamic, material congress of spectator and screen image” (204) in the viewing experience informs a stimulating conceptual-cinematic engagement. With its openness to a diversity of horrific films, its attention to the experiential aesthetics of horror, and its emphasis on thinking as an embodied process, 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.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Banned Books Week

September 26th to October 3rd is Banned Books Week, and various groups are doing some consciousness raising about it, such as the American Library Association, and this clumsy website. The ALA site has a list of the Radcliffe Publishing Course's Top 1oo books (of the 20th century), and reasons why they are frequently banned. From what I can gather, Radcliffe compiled this list for the Modern Library editorial board (and it doesn't look like it's organized chronologically). From what I can remember, I've only read 16 and a half of the books listed, but I would probably never read all one hundred anyway. For my reasoning see numbers 43 and 92.

The reasons given for challenging books are not the most entertaining reading, but they sometimes have entertainment value. Take, for instance, the list of prudish offenses taken toward Slaughterhouse-Five:
Challenged in many communities, but burned in Drake, N. Dak (1973). Banned in Rochester, Mich. because the novel "contains and makes references to religious matters" and thus fell within the ban of the establishment clause. An appellate court upheld its usage in the school in Todd v Rochester Community Schools, 41 Mich. App. 320, 200 N. W 2d 90 (I 972). Banned in Levittown, N.Y (1975), North Jackson, Ohio (1979), and Lakeland, Fla. (1982) because of the "book's explicit sexual scenes, violence, and obscene language." Barred from purchase at the Washington Park High School in Racine, Wis. (I 984) by the district administrative assistant for instructional services. Challenged at the Owensboro, Ky. High School library (1985) because of "foul language, a section depicting a picture of an act of bestiality, a reference to 'Magic Fingers' attached to the protagonist's bed to help him sleep, and the sentence: 'The gun made a ripping sound like the opening of the fly of God Almighty."'
To tell you the truth, I had forgotten about that last line. What a zinger!

However, this banned books list reminds me that I haven't started Ulysses. I'm already reading Hegel and Sartre for a paper! It's not like Ulysses is casual reading for unwinding after that.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Palin's Going Rogue

Honestly, I don't even know where to go with this. It just seems to write itself:
The book now has a title, one fitting for a public figure known for the unexpected – "Going Rogue: An American Life."

From what the article reports, a person named Lynn Vincent wrote the book in under four months. Then
Palin, 45, spent weeks in San Diego shortly after leaving office and worked on the manuscript with collaborator Lynn Vincent, a person close to her said. She was joined in San Diego by her family and her top aide, Meghan Stapleton, then spent several days in New York working around the clock with editors at Harper.

A few weeks? You know what they say, garbage in, garbage out. I suppose that not all garbage in is then converted to a first run of 1.5 million copies, of 400 pages a piece.

Before, however, you note that I should still be worried because she is a top contender for 2012, the much saner sounding Mike Huckabee beat Palin in a straw poll at the Value Voters summit in Washington. This should not be surprising because Huckabee was involved in the Republican primary process in 2007-2008, so instead of being promoted from Alaska to vice-president contender, he had to go out and network, giving him a historical base for another run (like placing second in Iowa, etc.). So, while my comment is non-scientific, I would guess that Huckabee is well-liked amongst, and connected with, party (or potential party) activists. That's really the only reason to have straw polls, because they don't follow any of the usual rules of random sample based polling.

Update: Uh, the word 'saner' is relative in the case of conservatives. I thought about the word 'more coherent' but, still, read on to see what I mean. Maybe I meant 'menacingly down home bigot.' Who knows? In front of a conference about taking back 'America' Huckabee let loose about the United Nations:
“It’s time to get a jackhammer and to simply chip off that part of New York City,” said Huckabee, “and let it float into the East River, never to be seen again!” That remark got him a standing ovation, and Huckabee went on to suggest de-funding the U.N. entirely.

“It’s time to say enough of the American taxpayer’s dollar being spent on something that may have been a noble idea, but has become a disgrace!” said Huckabee. “It has become the international equivalent of ACORN and it’s time to say enough!”

Freedom and Deleuze

From Terry Eagleton, Reason, Faith and Revolution:
The idea, touted in particular by some Americans, that Islamic radicals are envious of Western freedoms is about as convincing as the suggestion that they are secretly hankering to sit in cafes smoking dope and reading Gilles Deleuze (p. 145).
I guess when you can't sit in on the course, reading is as good as it gets:

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Sunday Review

Things are getting into order at The Notes Taken.

Coming up in the next week, we've got Sean Moreland reviewing Anna Powell's Deleuze and Horror Film, and sometime soon, Jamie Bradley will be reviewing Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice. Matt McLennan and I will, in our own ways, contribute something.

Today, in the New York Times Book Review, Jim Holt reviews Logicomix (written by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou; illustrated by Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna):
Well, this is unexpected — a comic book about the quest for logical certainty in mathematics. The story spans the decades from the late 19th century to World War II, a period when the nature of mathematical truth was being furiously debated. The stellar cast, headed up by Bertrand Russell, includes the greatest philosophers, logicians and mathematicians of the era, along with sundry wives and mistresses, plus a couple of homicidal maniacs, an apocryphal barber and Adolf Hitler.
And, in The London Review of Books (although this article is from late July), Tariq Ali provides a glimpse into the politics of Pakistan. In sum,
This is now Obama’s war. He campaigned to send more troops into Afghanistan and to extend the war, if necessary, into Pakistan. These pledges are now being fulfilled. On the day he publicly expressed his sadness at the death of a young Iranian woman caught up in the repression in Tehran, US drones killed 60 people in Pakistan. The dead included women and children, whom even the BBC would find it difficult to describe as ‘militants’. Their names mean nothing to the world; their images will not be seen on TV networks. Their deaths are in a ‘good cause’.
And my recent project on Sartre and the New Atheists leads me even further (back[?]) into the arcane and otherwise. I've started on Terry Eagleton's Reason, Faith, and Revolution, while Hegel's Faith and Knowledge taunts me from the shelf.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Culture of Wall Street

Before I move on to topics other than economics, here is a video of University of Minnesota professor Karen Ho discussing the culture of Wall Street. Needless to say, it's not the most reassuring discussion. Ho is the author of Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street, published by Duke University Press. I guess no blog is complete without the youtube. Hat tip to Isis for bringing it to my attention.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Self-Promotion or Self-Critique?

Milton Fisk reviews a volume (in which I am a contributor) in "Radical Thought in the Time of Corporate Globalization," in Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, Vol. 18 n. 4 (Winter 2007), pp. 148-150.

His overall judgment on Philosophy Against Empire, Radical Philosophy Today, Vol. 4, edited by Tony Smith and Harry van der Linden (Philosophy Documentation Center, 2006):
Editors Tony Smith and Harry van der Linden have put together an excellent volume on a wide range of important social and political problems. A notable exception is the absence of an essay devoted to the impact of corporate globalization on the environment, which reflects the absence of a major focus on the environment within this group of radical philosophers.
On my contribution, Fisk writes:
In “Biopolitics and the State of Exception,” Devin Zane Shaw criticizes the state from the perspective of immigration. Following Giorgio Agamben, Shaw sees migrants as exposing a crisis that affects sovereignty, democracy, and human rights. Sovereignty leads to treating migrants as outcasts, as bare individuals with no democratic or human rights. Due to the nature of sovereignty, failure awaits reformists who accept the sovereign state. Moreover, human rights, being for Shaw only the creatures of sovereignty, lack liberatory potential. The implication is that the plight of migrants can be resolved by doing away with the state.
That's a decent synopsis. Although I must admit that I have since been rethinking whether that implication should be that the state form should be abolished, especially if that means that multinational corporations will take over its functions. If I had to write the piece now, I don't think I would rely as heavily on Foucault and Agamben. I now think he overstates his case because the 'state of exception' appears to be a metaphysical destiny, which has those same fatalist overtones that Heidegger's later work possesses. This would require rereading Agamben, but I am currently busy with philosophy from the 1920s to 1940s (at this moment, Benjamin and Sartre, an odd couple if there ever was one), which is over a century after the stuff I was reading for the primary sources of my dissertation (Schelling's work from 1795-1810).

In retrospect, I think that one of the major problems with Agamben's (and, in a different way, Foucault's) analysis is that while it talks biopolitics quite well, it has trouble linking this with a critique of capitalism. I do, however, still think that politically marginalized populations tell us important things about globalization, which is why I discussed the figure of the immigrant and his or her relationship to sovereign power. What my article stressed is that anybody's encounter with the state as police force depends on the caprice of this force, and that formal rights don't guarantee anything in this encounter.

What I had not worked on so much, as I wrote that essay (from 2003 to 2005), was a theory of ideology. I think a theory of ideology would have allowed me to render less abstract, and less global, statements about things such as the mobilization of human rights in the war on terror. Now I would try and pinpoint the history of human rights as they are mobilized for intervention and when they are not, to show how these interventions correspond to some other interest (like geo-political dominance, economic benefit, etc.). It seems to me that this would lead to a distinction between formal, individual rights and collective economic justice (including environmental justice, since Fisk mentioned that the Radical Philosophy volume did not display interest in this topic) and that the left should advocate the latter.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Notable Reviews: Tony Wood on Latin America

In the New Left Review 58, Tony Wood reviews Michael Reid's Forgotten Continent. The review is worth reading because Reid's book is an example of the kind of revisionism I was discussing in previous posts. When neoliberal theorists encounter data that shows that the Washington Consensus has served more to redistribute wealth to the rich rather than continuously spur economic growth for the benefit of the lower classes, their (the neoliberals) solution is more neoliberal medicine. So as Wood summarizes:
In his balance sheet of the Washington Consensus, however, Reid admits that its overall economic record was ‘relatively disappointing’: growth picked up in the early 1990s, but stagnated from 1998 to 2002, the ‘lost half-decade’; the recovery from 2004 onwards, meanwhile, owed much to high commodity prices. The reason for this underwhelming performance, according to Reid, is that ‘too much remained unreformed’—Latin America continues to suffer from technological backwardness, low productivity, excessive regulation, bad transport and weak institutions. The answer, then, is more of the same neoliberal medicine—but this time, with ‘a greater emphasis on equity and the role of the state in obtaining it’, in line with ‘the new consensus being implemented by many governments in Latin America’ [my emphasis- DS].
As Wood points out, the new consensus in many of the governments of Latin America recognizes that neoliberal reforms are fundamentally antidemocratic, and anti-egalitarian. Instead, the 'new consensus', or Bolivarian Revolution, as it were, recognizes that neoliberalism increasingly leads to the enrichment of the few while the many end up working in an economy driven by a single export or the service industry (think, for instance, tourism), and increasing marginalization as democratic processes are subverted by powerful influences:
in the shape of the IMF, ratings agencies, hedge funds or multinational corporations, a host of outside actors entirely immune from democratic accountability have a decisively increased say over the fate of hundreds of millions, with the power to hold recalcitrant governments to ransom or blackmail them onto the path of macroeconomic orthodoxy.
Of course, one may object that authors such as Reid have learned a lesson. A reader may wonder why I claim that Reid holds a revisionist attitude when he admits that reform needs "a greater emphasis on equity and the role of the state in obtaining it." And this is why Wood's argument is important to read, because the
social schemes Reid advocates appear as little more than pious window-dressing, amid continual tranfers of massive resources to bondholders and the export overseas of ramped-up profits from privatized utilities. They are the symbolic element of redistribution—‘homeopathic’, in Perry Anderson’s phrase—designed to secure mass approval for the ongoing class project of neoliberalism. Their ideological character is made clear by Reid’s approval for their ‘individual’ nature, and by his disparagement of old-fashioned notions of ‘entitlement’. For such schemes seek to replace collective rights to a share of national income with atomized dependency on the state—and in the process have worked to entrench existing patterns of poverty. According to a 2007 UNRISD [UN Research Institute for Social Development] report, through their focus on women as guarantors of compliance with the schemes’ requirements, they have also reinforced traditional patterns of gender inequality [my emphasis].
Reid, as Wood points out, advocates these measures because they undermine an idea of collective rights and replaces them with a notion of individual rights. This transformation is not neutral: neoliberals know, as the path from Pinochet to Fujimori shows, the antidemocratic shock of neoliberal reform works best when social solidarity is destroyed. Many of the reforms that Reid advocates diminish social solidarities (such as unions) in a gentler form. After the disastrous decades of the 1970s and 1980s, market reformers know that this cannot be accomplished through direct brute force. Hence authors such as Reid seek ideological consensus for the continued, and in their eyes, unerring, project of neoliberalism.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Hitchens Travelogue: god is not Great

I am about half way through Christopher Hitchens' god is not Great, and I can admit that, at this point, it is well written; much better written than some of his lesser (h/t to Caroline), um, accomplishments. The most distracting, and annoying part about his narrative is his insistence on telling the reader about how many places he has visited. Great! You're a jet-setter! Hell, you might even get yourself waterboarded at about the same time you have decided to change your mind about the Iraq war! It's a lot of work to recreate yourself from something like a Marxist, to G.W.Bush and war on terror advocate, to 'shoot-from-the-hip' atheist. If you want to know what the latest thing is, Hitchens is there, about 3 months to 5 years too late. To think, this guy once wrote the sharp and polemic The Trial of Henry Kissinger.

So, by the time god is not Great gets to the interesting anecdote about "representing the devil, as it were, pro bono" (the office of the Devil's Advocate having been recently abolished) in the process of the beatification of Mother Theresa (p. 145), he's already visited, in the narrative, Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem, Baghdad, Bosnia, Calcutta, Damascus, Tehran, Doha, Istanbul, Jerusalem, Malaysia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and the Vatican (and I may have forgotten some). Hitchens, we know that you're a journalist; you don't have to tell us that you have traveled.

Update: He has also managed to mention trips to Hebron, Uganda and Afghanistan in subsequent chapters.

Update #2 (September 24, 2009): Add a mention of North Korea. His 'new' Afterword (taken from a piece in Vanity Fair) is an account of his book tour. So that adds Little Rock, New York City, Austin, Raleigh, NC, Atlanta, Coral Gables, FL, Los Angeles, Seattle and Canada. And just when you thought it couldn't continue, in his Acknowledgments he references a trip with Ian McEwan to "that remote Uruguayan coast where Darwin so boldly put ashore and took samples."

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Meltdown, but Is It the End of Greed?

I imagine that writing books on current affairs can be a perilous affair, because they so quickly become obsolete. However, if done correctly, they are important because the book format allows for viewing current events as a totality, and can shape how people view the world around them. This is perhaps most difficult to accomplish with economics, which is already a difficult subject for most. I pretend to no expertise, with my education in the field being largely auto-didactic and Marxist. My own interest has revolved around educating myself about neo-liberalism and globalization, and two of the more important, and comprehensible accounts of both, in my humble opinion, are David Harvey's A Brief History of Neoliberalism and Giovanni Arrighi's Adam Smith in Beijing.

Paul Mason's Meltdown: The End of the Age of Greed displays the same rigor and clarity of Harvey or Arrighi. He shows how neoliberalism, with its creed of deregulation, privatization, and financialization led to the collapse of finance and the banking industry. According to Mason, the driving force behind financialization was a surplus of capital that people sought to invest for a profit. Due to low interest rates, this surplus could not all be invested profitably in production of goods and services, and turned toward increasing financialization and speculation. The result: low interest rates have fueled
repeated bubbles in the price of assets: stock markets, houses, and latterly commodities like oil and grain. What we have seen since the year 2000, as investment dipped and interest rates fell, is the tendency for capital to flow frantically into one asset bubble after another, with the finance system as the conduit (p.70)
These bubbles are much easier to map, as it were, with commodities such as oil. Where Mason is at his best is showing how much more difficult it is to understand what happens when the greatest crisis revolves around derivatives such as credit default swaps and collateral debt obligations. A collateral debt obligation (CDO) is a set of "bonds wrapped together, often issued only for the purpose of being wrapped up and sold, in chunks, with the risks inside not immediately obvious to the credit rating agencies that gave them a risk rating (p. 188)" and a credit-default swap is, in this case, insurance on the CDO. The credit-default swap proved irresistible for profiteering because it both enabled investors to move liabilities off their balance sheets (because they were insured) in the form of CDOs, and CDOs offered buyers a higher interest rate. For a very short time, the going was good for high finance:
The value of asset-backed securities issued each year ballooned from a few billion in the late 1990s to $2 trillion when the bubble burst. The value of the credit default swaps grew much faster: from zero to $58 trillion in 2008 (p. 92-93).
The problem, of course, with this kind of money (The total GDP of the world was $65 trillion) is that it produces institutional incentives that are perverse. As Mason points out, quickly conflicts of interest arose between creditors and ratings agencies as everybody in the finance sector sought to cash in: "bond issuers [were] paying to have their own products to be rated," and rating agencies never had a reliable method for calculating risk (p. 94).

Thus when the subprime mortgage market went bust, and investors sought to cash in on their insurance on defaults, banks had to curb their short-term lending to hold more capital on hand to pay out on bad debt and maintain investor confidence. The sheer size of the default market amplified this problem, and soon, it became impossible to put a value on much of the paper (toxic debts, as it were) they were pushing around.

What came next is what Mason calls the credit freeze (which he pinpoints to August 7, 2007): a bank would look at their stack of toxic debt, and realized that if their trading partners had the same problem, they would not get back the money they had lent them. This lack of confidence was based on the fact that CDOs were layered, or structured, with debt possessing various levels of risk, and if the riskier debt was spread around (across the globe, actually), very few of the main players would be able to avoid the consequences of debt default. Soon short-term credit dried up, which made it more difficult to finance the long-term debt. This situation was compounded with a commodities bubble driven by speculation, which resulted in the global economy entering a period of both inflation (due to the increased price of oil and other commodities from August 2007 to September 2008) and tighter credit, and finally, the financial system melted down (pp. 99-117).

Overall, Mason's analyses are clear and critical. Perhaps the most obvious shortcoming of Meltdown is his confidence that we have reached an 'end of the age of greed.' For Mason, the partial nationalization of banks is evidence that neoliberal ideology, with its emphasis on minimal government intervention in the market has been discredited. But, as David Harvey argues, in practice proponents of neoliberalism don't mind if private risk is shifted to the public. Perhaps this sounds familiar:
neoliberal states typically favor the integrity of the financial system and the solvency of financial institutions over the well-being of the population or environmental quality (pp. 70-71).
Does that sound similar to any country's bailout plan that we can think of? Only a year after the the meltdown began and, apparently, as the headline says, "Credit Swaps Lose Stigma as Confidence Returns." Revisionism has already begun:

“A functioning credit-default swaps market contributes to more efficient extension of credit” by giving investors and lenders confidence that the industry won’t implode, said Alexander Yavorsky, a senior analyst at Moody’s Investors Service in New York. The consequences of Lehman’s failure “were astronomical, broadly speaking, but the CDS market worked well,” he said.
Worked well, of course, for those who continue to profit, but the rest of us? Must have something to do with the "astronomical" part. So apparently, those in the industry haven't really learned their lesson, requiring, as Mason points out, state intervention and stricter, even more aggressive regulation. But it is not an end to the age of greed. Neoliberal practice does not abhor a crisis, in fact, crises (as Mason observes) are built into the system. Yet the term 'greed' makes it sound the meltdown was the product of ill behaving individuals, when, as Harvey argues, the transfer of wealth from the state and world's poor to the world's richest is part of the design of neoliberalism itself. The first step to a more egalitarian system, aside from regulation, is to close the revolving door between finance capitalism and government, a move neither party in the USA seems able or willing to do.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A Cruel Hoax

Think back, not so long ago, to August of 2008, and even September. To the economic and financial meltdown. Lehman. Bear Stearns. Remember who was supposed to be the president of the U.S. at the time; that guy who had taken the oath of office, but who seemed to be, or was, just punching the clock until January 2009? Preparing (commissioning) legacy speech after legacy speech, just to have to put them all aside for some damn financial crisis? Nope, I'm not talking about Obama, or McCain, or Dick Cheney. That other guy. The one, who you could tell had no idea about how economics worked. No, not Paulson, Bernanke or Greenspan. I said president. That guy with no credibility.

Well, if you wanted to know what he was up to during that time, you might find it in Matt Latimer's Speech-less: Tales of a White House Survivor, the latest tell-all-tome from former member's of Bush's political team. Latimer was a speech writer for the president (and also Donald Rumsfeld), who seems to be disaffected with the whole process, although in this excerpt from GQ, it's hard to tell. Most people will probably be less interested in the lessons Latimer may have learned in the halls of power than what inhabitants of these halls had to say. So, Bush, who seemed to have no idea about his bailout plan (except, I would guess, that it was a nice, wet kiss to his friends on Wall Street), has this to say about candidate Obama:
“This is a dangerous world,” he said for no apparent reason, “and this cat isn’t remotely qualified to handle it. This guy has no clue, I promise you.” He wound himself up even more. “You think I wasn’t qualified?” he said to no one in particular. “I was qualified.”
Which goes to show that Bush probably thought the most important aspect of the presidency was bullying other countries. His domestic policy, and this almost doesn't even need to be said, was a disaster, in more ways than one. Although, of course, you don't make it too far in politics if you don't have a bit of acumen. On Palin:
“This woman is being put into a position she is not even remotely prepared for,” he said. “She hasn’t spent one day on the national level. Neither has her family. Let’s wait and see how she looks five days out.” It was a rare dose of reality in a White House that liked to believe every decision was great, every Republican was a genius, and McCain was the hope of the world because, well, because he chose to be a member of our party.
What probably drives much of the interest in Latimer's book, at this point, are these kinds of observations.(more are listed here). More precisely, people probably want to know what Bush was thinking as his presidency slid (even further) into self-deluded irrelevancy. If the book is anything like the excerpt, Latimer's account won't be heavy on critique, but more oriented to the story of human foibles and hubris. Which doesn't explain much about larger political trends, because the problems that Bush faced weren't external misfortunes. Many of them, especially the financial collapse and the recession, are consequences of the neoliberal ideology so predominant in Washington DC (which is why it's called the Washington Consensus), just as the failure of the war on terror can be placed on the imperialist and belligerent belief that American dominance can be asserted by brute force. The problem with what will probably be the ensuing media frenzy over Latimer's book is that its focus will be on Washingtonian intrigues and loyalties, and not on the policies and decisions that led to the conservative implosion of 2008. Instead of learning their lessons, the Republicans have been spending the last ten months rewriting history to remove the blame from their deliberate mismanagement of government. Not because I give a damn about Republicans learning their lessons, but because their errors and (more importantly) their malfeasance effect everybody else.

Update: I forgot to mention that
Speech-less: Tales of a White House Survivor comes out tomorrow.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Reading Lists

Now that I have submitted my dissertation, I can return to all those non-dissertation-topic-based books that have been piling up. I thought a good feature for this site would be for us to post our reading lists, and eventually, our readers can give us recommendations in the comments. So here we go.

1. Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice.

Just started this one. Pynchon's writing style is fairly singular. This time he's playing with sixties and seventies lingo in what seems to be a send up of a detective novel. I'd like to imagine that he had fun writing this book, but I suppose that would be like imagining that he had a paranoid time writing The Crying of Lot 49.

2. James Joyce, Ulysses.
Those who know me, know the story: I have the 75th anniversary hardcover edition of Ulysses, but have refused to read it until my thesis is submitted, because it is the kind of book that derails academic research.

3. Sartre, Being and Nothingness.
I am reading this for part of a paper about Sartre and New Atheism that I am giving at the North American Sartre Society's conference at the University of Memphis. Which is why I am reading:

4. Christopher Hitchens, God is not Great.
At least he won't be in attendance.

5. Walter Benjamin, various Selected Writings.

Matt seems to think I might have something interesting to say for a panel at the CPA next year. I've got all of the selected writings, and the Arcades Project, so I should be able to find something to say about Benjamin, whose essay "Author as Producer" ended up playing a prominent role in a paper I gave at the RPA's conference in November 2008. When I was setting up my library in the study, through some coincidence, these books ended up sitting conveniently to my left, so that I don't even have to get up to look for them.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Introducing The Notes Taken

To begin: The Notes Taken is a blog dedicated to the review of important books in philosophy, politics, history or fiction. We would like it to present an informal venue to discuss and debate recent, and sometimes not so recent, literature in these fields. I, like many of the other writers, have written reviews for academic journals, and are otherwise avid readers in many areas that do not fall into our ‘fields of expertise.’ But that doesn’t mean that we have no ability to think critically about what we read, and argue about which books, out of the many thousands published, deserve to be read. The reviews published in The Notes Taken, I imagine, will run from a few hundred words to much more extensive critiques, probably depending on reviewer. I had mulled the idea of this blog for some time, mainly due to what I think is the inadequacy of large, established reviews, to discuss many independent books, or books that do not fall in the mainstream of political opinion. The internet has transformed the way that people read the news, and report the news, and there is no reason that it should not transform the way we read books, or discuss books.

Coming Soon: My review of Paul Mason, Meltdown: The End of the Age of Greed. London: Verso, 2009.