Win-win Ecology is a sales pitch for Rosenzweig's pet Big Idea, “Reconciliation Ecology.” The problem is, I don't really feel like Rosenzweig ever eve...moreWin-win Ecology is a sales pitch for Rosenzweig's pet Big Idea, “Reconciliation Ecology.” The problem is, I don't really feel like Rosenzweig ever even had the idea. The book reads like Rosenzweig was stuck in an airport with John Vandermeer and Ivette Perfecto and they gave him the layman's version of Nature's Matrix, he thought it was just so profound and stuff, and now he's telling his Aunt all about it. It is exaggeratedly folksy at times, and way, way oversells his assertion that reconciliation ecology techniques will pay for themselves, “a huge win-win.” There are a couple tepid examples of reconciliation in practice, found examples that Rosenzweig describes as “happy accidents” but which are usually explained by government legislation and tourist economics – things Rosenzweig seems to have little use for. Much of the book is occupied with his philosophical predilections – he dislikes government conceptually, believes “small is beautiful,” and really thinks that we should be better stewards of God's creation.
Who knows what the intended or average audience Rosenzweig had in mind for this book was, but it's hard to imagine anyone not coming away disappointed. The idea sometimes feels aimed at ecologists. But for them, it retreads broad theoretical ground and goes into exactly no detail on the novel aspects of his contribution. At other times, I thought Rosenzweig was shooting for policymakers, since the scale of national and regional regulations can achieve exactly what reconciliation ecology prescribes: small accommodations applied on large scales. Most of the time, though, it's clear Rosenzweig is speaking to “the folks back home,” and intends his solutions to apply to amateur backyard enthusiasts. These people will find little of use here either, however. Rosenzweig doesn't even do them the courtesy of recommending books of more practical advice, like Tallamy's Bringing Nature Home.
The best material in the book is where he lays out the species-area relationship and island biogeography. He frames the present mass extinction in a simple and intuitive relationship I'd never heard anyone use before, and it seems quite obvious in retrospect. We have reduced habitat on the planet to 5% of its original state, and since we know that species richness scales with size in a predictable relationship, we know that the number of species will eventually equilibrate to about 5% of what it is now. This is an elegant explanation and it is well done. Unfortunately, Rosenzweig surrounds this explanation with a lot of unnecessary platitudes and trite rhetoric about the value of nature and the spiritual duty we have to safeguard the Creation. There are books out there that make that case to the unconvinced. Win-win Ecology is supposed to be doing something else, but it never remembers to do it.
If you think you might want to read this, read Nature's Matrix instead. Vandermeer and Perfecto lay out the ecology of the idea in greater detail, and they bring in an impressive understanding of the social and economic forces that actually influence how people use their land. It's no coincidence that Rosenzweig references them several times in his book. (less)
Reza's dialogue here is just as impressively realistic and tense as in 'Art,' but while that play felt like a critical moment in a long friendship, Go...moreReza's dialogue here is just as impressively realistic and tense as in 'Art,' but while that play felt like a critical moment in a long friendship, God of Carnage is just an argument between total strangers that devolves from passive aggression to literal aggression. It is tense in a way that feels cacophonous and bitter, and there isn't really anything that justifies this level of unpleasantness. (less)
Pale Fire is a lot of fun to read. Nabokov's prose is top-notch and full of wonderful phrasings and high-class wordplay. Between that and the intricat...morePale Fire is a lot of fun to read. Nabokov's prose is top-notch and full of wonderful phrasings and high-class wordplay. Between that and the intricate series of self-references among the poem, commentary, and index, the book is an incredible piece of craftsmanship. The value of that series of references seems a bit overblown; it's a marvel that he made it, but it wasn't always something I enjoyed for its own sake. Kinbote's character is rich and compelling, but in a way that seemed very Nabokovian, at least very reminiscent of Humbert Humbert, sharing, if I remember correctly, their affected, mincing personas and their enthusiastically pretentious tastes as well as their shameless pederasty (what does it say about Nabokov that two of his unsympathetic protagonists are largely aspersed for their sexual orientations?).
This seems perhaps intentional, but I found Kinbote's world-building of Zembla to be terribly weak. Kinbote drops many heavy-handed hints that he is the king in exile of Zembla, but the stories he tells seem more orientalist fiction than personal experiences. The bits about Kinbote's relationship with Shade and other academics at Wordsmith, especially where the cracks of unreliability in the narration show, are the most enjoyable, full of Kinbote's rather hilarious snubs and insults. There is some pathos in Shade's story, and in Kinbote's friendship with him, but this exists at an abstraction from the actual narration. Most of the fun of the book, in its clever hypertextual design and its perfect, riotous prose, feels somewhat thin and superficial. Not quite meaty enough for 5 stars, even though it probably deserves it. (less)
Researching Philip K Dick I happened across Baudrillard's essay “Ballard's Crash.” Baudrillard is low on my list of post-modern thinkers and I couldn'...moreResearching Philip K Dick I happened across Baudrillard's essay “Ballard's Crash.” Baudrillard is low on my list of post-modern thinkers and I couldn't make much sense of what he had to say about Dick's The Simulacra even after reading that book, but I decided to read Crash anyway because it gets referenced a lot and I remember JT read it when we were teenagers, which I guess is all it takes these days.
Crash wears its themes and motifs on its sleeve more than any other fiction I can think of. It's a 230 page repetition of a single concept, the car crash as junction between human sexuality and the aesthetics of the automobile. Ballard creates a subculture of car crash fetishists, elaborating the terms and tropes of their fantasies and the peculiar value system underlying them. What makes Crash feel so unique is that he is able to bring the reader into this world from the first page, articulating Vaughan's vision with such vivid, evocative prose that you'll soon be wondering why you never saw the erotic potential in the design and smashing of cars before (it's like a high-class version of Transformers-style redneck car culture).
Ballard never tries to create a bridge between Vaughan's aesthetic and anything many readers could relate to. There are, in fact, no characters in the novel outside of Vaughan's circle. Twice it is implied that there are others comparable groups of ambulance chaser crash fetishists showing up at pivotal moments in the plot. The absence of a reader-surrogate character, even antagonists or side characters to represent a conventional morality, make this immersion feel complete and total. Vaughan and his acolytes are not perverts or deviants because in their world, there is no other standard. This, presumably, is what led Baudrillard to claim that Crash is beyond moral criticism; this seems a shallow interpretation contrasting with some of Baudrillard's more insightful observations. Just because conventional morality doesn't make an appearance in the book doesn't mean it didn't shape it and doesn't relate to it in the act of reading. But I can sympathize, to an extent. The gravity of Ballard and Vaughan's aesthetic imperative is heady and seductive. Ballard, the protagonist, writes in a style that is at once indulgent and detached. After Ballard has settled you in to this new worldview, a relativist might see little reason to make the trip back to earth.
Baudrillard's analysis doesn't seem particularly valuable. Much of his conclusions are obvious and preempted in the text itself – Ballard the narrator is quite cynical and detached, and his language is quite aware of the post-modern implications of his story. Translation between the lines and slopes of cars and curves and figures of human bodies, between crumples, scratches, and jagged glass and bruises, scars, and deformities, at the symbolic nexus between car and body in the crash appears in such terms on practically every page. This kind of abstracted pattern-based sexuality is common to universal in our world, from fashion to modeling and pornography to beauty ideals and gender roles. Ballard has essentially lifted off the model of culturally mediated sexuality and applied it to something bizarre and novel to illustrate how it functions. Baudrillard's comparison to the symbolic body languages of tatooing and body modification is apt and relevant, but he doesn't go anywhere interesting with it. The rest of his insights I think overreach the text substantially in order to enthusiastically proclaim the extremist doctrines of his school of thought, which I get the impression are sort of ill-thought-out, stylized versions of post-modern tropes.
Ballard's writing is impressive and the sort of culture-shock it achieves is a rare treat in reading. But the book is repetitive to the point of monotony. There are discrete events in it, but the characters care so little about them, or care about each of them in the same way, that it all blurs together. There is no forward motion, and the ending is revealed in the first paragraph, a logical and inevitable culmination of practically every page of the book. I enjoyed it all, but I am not really convinced it needed to be as long as it was. (less)
In contrast to Ubik, The Simulacra must be one of Dick's most technically ambitious works, cramming in over 50 (thanks whichever other reviewer counte...moreIn contrast to Ubik, The Simulacra must be one of Dick's most technically ambitious works, cramming in over 50 (thanks whichever other reviewer counted those for me B|) characters and practically every scifi device conceivable. We've got colonies on Mars and the Moon, androids, advertising drones, psycho-empathic robotic advertising drones, psychokinetic artists, nuclear post-apocalypse zones, human offshoot subspecies, alternate history timelines, and time travel. All that set in a dystopian future managed by a conspiratorial cabal. With a heavy dose of Nazism, both Neo and traditional. Hermann Goering time travels with a lion cub.
That's not usually my idea of a recipe for a good book, but Dick pulls it off in a way I ended up really enjoying. All the high-concept rigmarole is just idle backdrop for a rich cast of characters, all of whom are quite nose-to-the-ground engrossed in their personal hangups – a fact perhaps consciously driven home by just how many of them seek help from the one remaining practicing psychoanalyst. Dick hints constantly at elements of an over-arching plot, to time travel-informed prophecies of minor events translated into major historical consequences and to vast conspiratorial machineries. Then he ends the book without revealing any of those mechanisms; it remains quite unclear how any of the characters could have done anything to alter the outcome, what exactly most of their roles were in the first place, and who what consequences the end actually had. It's a remarkable dose of ambiguity for a book that seems constantly poised to make so many boring points or take so many cheap twists.
Simulacra is probably not one of Dick's most personal, psychological, mystical stories, and in that it maybe isn't one of his best. But the reserve with which he handles the plot and its revelations and implications is maybe unmatched in his oeuvre. (less)
Reza writes amazingly vibrant and realistic dialogue, and the three characters in this story really spring to life in its few pages. My current ideas...moreReza writes amazingly vibrant and realistic dialogue, and the three characters in this story really spring to life in its few pages. My current ideas about fiction value these moments of vivid character interaction over pretty much everything else, and the only thing really lacking about 'Art' is that, compared to the novels and tv shows I'm used to consuming, it feels so short and isolated. Makes me wonder if Reza's novels are worth checking out.(less)
Berger's Social Construction of Reality is a thorough and concise expression of a lot of things I'd already learned or intuited about the topic. This...moreBerger's Social Construction of Reality is a thorough and concise expression of a lot of things I'd already learned or intuited about the topic. This is a nice thing to have, cementing a lot of thoughts in place and confirming that I had indeed understood the concepts accurately. And Berger's writing is nowhere near as impenetrable and arcane as I'd expected it would be. His style is a bit ornate, using unusual phrasings and word variants, but it's all straightforward enough to parse on a first pass. On the other hand, his examples are largely disappointing. Berger wrote this in the 1960's; a lot of its ideas were around even earlier.
I grew up in a world suffused with fiction exploring implications of Berger's thesis, from Borges and Philip K. Dick to Wade Davis and Barry Lopez. I've seen tons of explorations and examples of Berger's ideas by writers far more creative than him. It's no surprise his thought experiments fall a bit flat. But it's not just that they're boring or don't take ideas to interesting places; this isn't really the place for that. It's that they often are quite unhelpful at just explaining the ideas, or distract from his thesis in some way. His examples are colorful and memorable, from a love triangle between a lesbian, a gay man, and a bisexual, to a peasant who must integrate into his identity his role as a peasant “cringing before his lord” and as a husband beating his wife, to an island tribesman thrashing his insolent nephew. He often cites gender as an example, which, while it is a social construct, is certainly too complex and debated to be used as an introductory example from any point of view.
The other problem with Berger's examples is that many of them seem too naïve to believe in this day and age. Perhaps it is true that, at one point, people were so credulous and straightforward about their concepts of reality, but these days post-modernism and irony have suffused our culture so fundamentally that it raises eyebrows to speculate on individuals who take their own ideas about the world so seriously, who completely lack even the concept that other ways of doing things exist, on issues that are relatively apolitical. Berger does make mention of the fact that his decentralized, relativist ideas about culture and reality are a result of the proliferation of worldviews in our rapidly globalizing and industrializing world. The introduction of many worldviews that function side by side without serious friction or disfunction undermines the primacy of one's own worldview.
I had for some reason expected Berger to focus more on ontology, essentially to the application of sociology of knowledge to scientific realism. Instead, Berger essentially takes a provisional level of realism for granted. He assumes the existence of the world, including humans as biological entities with some fixed properties that distinguish them from other animals (the nexus between evolutionary biology and culture is super interesting and one I'm sure is becoming better-studied now, and by holding it as a constant Berger makes the biggest oversimplification of the book. Probably not a bad choice given his goals, though) and posits culture as a product of that interaction, unique to each society and sub-society. Culture then affects both humans and the world and the three have a complex mutual interaction ever since, one that is quite difficult to exactly decipher. The point is, Berger's question is not about the ontological status of reality, but rather about the formation, evolution, and maintenance of worldviews and identity groups.
Studying abroad in Tanzania, some of my anthropology major friends were complaining about how sociologists always say that “reality is socially constructed.” I believed this to be true at the time, so I asked what their alternative would be: “reality is culturally constructed.” Aside from being a really dumb petty disciplinary squabble, this distinction misses the point of Berger's idea. The book is an abstract, speculative theory about how cultures are created, and it constantly asserts that culture is an all-encompassing, subjectively experienced set of concepts and relationships synonymous with “reality” itself. Berger of course rarely uses the word “culture,” though subculture appears quite often, but it's impossible to mistake his meaning without stooping to willfully obtuse jargon quibbling.
For all its inadequacies, Social Construction of Reality is probably the best simple introduction to post-modernism I've come across yet. It focuses on the material, cultural underpinnings and consequences of what are often framed as philosophical debates and problems, driving home the contingency of our arguments and identities in historical and biographical circumstance. It emphasizes that reality is on every level created and maintained by repeated enactments by individuals. It also illustrates quite saliently the literal ubiquity of tropes and narratives in every facet of life. It would be fun to teach this book, pulling from the post-modern literary corpus for more interesting and well-executed examples. Definitely recommended for anyone looking to get a better understanding of post-modernism, relativism, or just a theoretical framework for how culture works. (less)
I'm not quite sure where I want to come down on this. Vonnegut's writing is so palatable and nice and brief that it's hard to begrudge it anything. An...moreI'm not quite sure where I want to come down on this. Vonnegut's writing is so palatable and nice and brief that it's hard to begrudge it anything. And the premises of SH5 are super nice, and I think only seem a bit old hat by now because the book is pioneered them so thoroughly. Having just read a book about Nietzsche, the Tralfamadorian view of time and free will and their attitudes about it (so it goes) seems to turn Nietzsche's Eternal Recurrence on its head in a really satisfying way. Billy Pilgrim is a great character for this (he's so the opposite of so much of Nietzsche's ideals) and Vonnegut develops him in a fun way, through memorable and quirky situations that emphasize his tenuous hold on his own personal narrative and play it for laughs.
On the other hand, it just feels really thin. Vonnegut's 8th rule of writing says "Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages." and he really seems to have taken that to heart in this book. He lays it all out in the first quarter, all of Billy's life events, all his lessons from Tralfamadore, all his strange acquaintances, etc. Even all of the image motifs are there (blue and ivory feet ad infinitum). Most of the book feels like it's just going through its own motions. It's not bad, but it just didn't develop the pull to make me want to read more Vonnegut right away.(less)
After reading Derrida for Beginners, Foucault seems superior just insofar as his power/knowledge idea is essentially what the deconstruction concept s...moreAfter reading Derrida for Beginners, Foucault seems superior just insofar as his power/knowledge idea is essentially what the deconstruction concept should have been. It doesn't rely on strict dichotomies and it's explicated through a series of historical examples, grounding the concepts firmly in their material and cultural contexts. That's great. But it also seems to undermine the value of this book. Fillingham chooses a few of Foucault's works and summarizes their essential points and their relationship to his philosophy. I don't know how much of this is her fault and how much is just a consequence of the specific historicism of his works, but that distillation didn't leave a whole lot. Compared to Derrida, Foucault comes off like a less fertile but more focused thinker. I wonder how “ideological” Foucault's books are; ie, how they are seen by peer historians? Do his philosophical concepts skew his view of history? Is it real history, or is he using pseudo-mythologies to advance his arguments? I don't know that I would ever feel the need to do so now, but I'd much rather read Foucault than Derrida. (less)
Derrida is at the heart of the post-modern movement in philosophy and it seemed valuable to get some idea of what his ideas were. In Powell's lucid an...moreDerrida is at the heart of the post-modern movement in philosophy and it seemed valuable to get some idea of what his ideas were. In Powell's lucid and clever presentation, it becomes clear that he did advance a preponderance of pomo premises in both philosophy and literature, but also why his works are notoriously abstruse and stymying. Throughout the book, I kept thinking "yes, that's a core tenet of my worldview and something that makes a lot of sense, but why did he ever choose to explain it like *that*?"
Much of Derrida's early career developed his arguments by critiquing some pretty low hanging philosophical fruit. The core tenet of deconstructionism, that there is no grounding center of meaning, is defined against dichotomies that are so absurd as to seem strawmen (Christian v. pagan? seriously?) A lot of this surely stems from hindsight - it seems obvious that man v. woman is a false dichotomy now, but that's perhaps only because I've grown up in a world in which Derrida is old-hat. Still, the idea that the philosophy community would have taken these dichotomies seriously at face value at any time within the last hundred years seems unlikely. It's neat to see Derrida premise this discussion in social power hierarchies, following Marx in making philosophy cognizant of its material and cultural contexts. But the invocation of cultural context makes the dichotomy concept seem even more absurdly simplistic. I guess it's just meant to simplify the concept for explanatory purposes?
Next he hits Saussure, who had the poor sense to label writing as 'evil' in a book he wrote to be published. Saussure provides the idea that both symbols and concepts exist in a network of difference from each other, rather than through referents to real objects. Derrida simply removes the obvious fallacy from Saussure's conclusions to derive the postmodern idea that languages are independent systems that can never firmly anchor themselves to things-in-themselves.
If Saussure's ideas about writing are embarrassing, Rousseau's concepts are unmentionable. Yet Derrida saw fit to take the time to undermine his authenticity myth bullshit. He seemingly uses Rousseau as a kind of caricature of Romanticism that he applies to Levi-Strauss and from there, we infer, to the entire scientific enterprise. Despite all its attempts at objectivity and provisionality, scientists are still beholden to the desire to ground their findings in some Absolute Reality. But Powell doesn't give the impression Derrida spent much time thinking about philosophy of science, unfortunately – that is one of the most interesting applications of postmodern thought for me. He even bothers to critique Plato, of all people.
Derrida apparently had a flair for wordplay, and many of his middle period works are more examples than explanations of his ideas (even more so than his early works). This playful writing is probably even more difficult to parse than jargon-laden technical philosophy, in its own way. Anyway, one of these works, The Double Session, exhibits the idea that Masamune Shirow dubbed the “Stand Alone Complex” - a series of imitations without original referent. What hadn't occurred to me before (and the book never made this connection) is that this is a mirror of Derrida's ideas about language, that like concepts and words in a language, every component of a culture is defined by its difference from the rest in a chain that refers only to other components, not to reality itself. Reality as we know is just a social construct built on references to previous socially constructed realities. Wheeeeeeeee
Derrida's next work is seemingly his most arcane, a metatextual commentary that blows apart lines between text and commentary and previous texts. This sounds like a perfect nightmare to read, but it also seems to embody the same thesis Barthes presents lucidly in Death of the Author: the work exists both on its own and as a separate text including its relationships with every set of commentary, context, author bio, and references that a reader chooses to associate with it.
I love Derrida's concept of Hauntology, a contrast to Ontology, mostly because his fun is so accessible (very fresh and spooky skeletons). The neat thing about this is that it applies the play of meaning of deconstructionism to social zeitgeists and concepts. Deconstruction's first examples concern simultaneous interpretations from different perspectives (dominant and marginalized), adroitly analogized to the Rubin Vase – both a face and a vase are there, and the point of deconstruction is to be able to freely shift back and forth between the two, acknowledging that neither is more justified by the image itself. Hauntology makes this plural and temporal: historical ideas about reality are ghosts, interpretations that exist for a moment and are superseded by new ones in a ceaseless evolutionary process. It's a neat phrasing of a neat idea that gracefully explains postmodernism's fixation with things becoming passe.
I'm quite glad to have read this and get a much better sense of where some of these key postmodern ideas came from in their early development. Derrida seems extremely clever and fun and probably very funny depending on your sense of humor. But his works are evidently obsessed with their own originality, fixated on elaborate rhetorical word games, and extremely averse to clear statements of their own theses. Powell gave me everything I need to know about Derrida, at least for now.(less)