(8/10) It's not exactly as if no one has been talking about the joy of reading -- you can find endless such pieties, on Goodreads if nowhere else. But(8/10) It's not exactly as if no one has been talking about the joy of reading -- you can find endless such pieties, on Goodreads if nowhere else. But in academia, such a thing is generally not done. Books are either clinical objects to be dissected line-by-line or symbols of oppression to be railed against. Mention you're reading a book for fun in an English class and you'll probably get a lot of suspicious stares.
But Roland Barthes is one of those critics who just can't hide his pleasure. Even in his most dense and deconstructive work, there's a kind of playful mastery to the prose, a cheeky suggestion here and a subtle joke there. And then we have this, The Theory of the Text, which is a short theoretical musing on what it means to enjoy a text.
Those looking for some carefully-developed theory of aesthetics will probably want to look elsewhere. Even in this brief space, Barthes circles the argument instead of attacking it head-on. There are digressions, some of which are quite fruitful, includign a perfect one-paragraph summation of the deconstructive urge about halfway through. But the one thing Barthes keeps returning to is the pleasure of the reader, and how it's inextricably tied up with the pleasure of the writer. In my limited experience, this is very true: the writing that I later figure out is my best is that which I had fun writing. The way Barthes expresses this, it becomes a kind of erotic relationship, a connection of mutual pleasure between different times and places. There's a queer side to everything Barthes writes, and that's especially true of The Pleasure of the Text.
Even I have to admit that I was left wanting something a little more well-developed and rigorous (although that might just be because I wanted to read more Barthes). But such a thing would be against the ethos of this book -- the kind of textual play and effervescent joy that theory could use a lot more of. Ultimately, that joy is more powerful than any grade-school homily about the power of reading....more
(10/10) Far more than the memoirs of a half-remembered author, Earthly Paradise is a collection of memories and experiences that speak to every part o(10/10) Far more than the memoirs of a half-remembered author, Earthly Paradise is a collection of memories and experiences that speak to every part of life with both sensual and intellectual brilliance. There's an erotic undercurrent to the most innocent of memories, supplied by Colette's lush prose and teasing hints as to the scandals of her life. And there's no shortage of witticisms, some of which I actually laughed at.
If you're interested in reading an autobiographical modernist narrative that deals with issues of memory and eroticism, I would reccomend Colette over Proust any day of the week. It's a couple thousand pages shorter, much more readable, and a lot kinder to everyone involved. Or maybe it's just the lack of dinner parties I prefer.
I came to this book via Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, and only belatedly realized that it's in part a compilation of Colette's various autobiographical works. I'm really interested in reading all of the books it draws on now, as well as Colette's fiction. So like any great book, this one just leads me to countless more books. Not that I'm complaining....more
(8/10) In Direct Action, David Graeber sets out on what is ostensibly an anthropological ethnography of anarchist politics and the anti-globalization(8/10) In Direct Action, David Graeber sets out on what is ostensibly an anthropological ethnography of anarchist politics and the anti-globalization movement. As an active participant in these movements, Graeber offers a lot of insight into both the nuts-and-bolts preparation for major protests and the larger understanding of the world that shapes anarchist praxis. For those interested in the movement, this is almost too much detail -- but, as Graeber argues, meaningful action and understanding arises from even the most tedious meetings.
As Graeber readily admits, his perspective is a limited one, mostly focusing on the short-lived New York Direct Action Network and its involvement with the protests against a summit in Quebec City. For people like me who are less interested in the summit-protesting, window-smashing form of activism, this is a bit of a disappointment, and I remain unpersuaded by Graeber's arguments about the efficacy of the actions he describes. But if nothing else, he helps me to understand why summit riots are so important to so many people, and their political ramifications.
My favourite chapters of the books were the later ones, where Graeber moves away from specific examples and talks about broader trends and principles. His description and analysis of the interactions between activists, police and the media is revealing and complex while still having a strong moral urgency. Graeber understands society's institutions as not a monolithic system of oppression but a bunch of barely-functioning bureaucracies taking the easiest road possible -- a description which seems pretty accurate, given my own interactions with the government. Potshots at post-structuralism aside, Graeber makes a number of important interventions that should be taken up by writers and theorists everywhere.
Direct Action is a big baggy book, with a lot of detail that will bore some and entrance others (I was mostly in the latter camp). It's not quite as poetically vibrant and politically essential as some of Graeber's other work, particularly given that the form of activism he describes seems to be on the wane. But if you're looking for a highly readable account of the global justice movement in the early 2000s, look no further...more
(Too old to rate) St. Augustine's Confessions is frequently referred to as an early example of autobiography, perhaps the earliest, but if this is an(Too old to rate) St. Augustine's Confessions is frequently referred to as an early example of autobiography, perhaps the earliest, but if this is an autobiography it's a much different form of life writing than what we're used to today. While we get a good sense of St. Augustine's life trajectory, he's not really interested in providing vibrant detail or personal emotions. There's the skeleton of a narrative, the redemption of the author from sin and intellectual sophistry through Christianity and Platonism, but I would be hard pressed to call it a story.
What Augustine is more interested in is theology and philosophy, and hence the story of his life is the story of a shift through various intellectual positions. In the last four books, he abandons autobiography altogether and enters into a meditation on the nature of time (a surprisingly contemporary concern). While Augustine doesn't full embrace Plato's philosophy, his approach is not too distant, using narrative as a framework for argumentation but still maintaining a strong didactic method.
At one point St. Augustine comments that it was difficult to accept the ugly heterogeneity of the Bible over the beautiful and well-organized works of Greek antiquity. Being in the midst of a masochistic attempt to read the Bible cover to cover, I'm inclined to agree. The Confessions, or at least the public-domain translation I read, is very much of a piece with the Bible, with the interesting bits hidden between endless God-praising. What's interesting, though, about Augustine's remark is that it sheds a lot of light on his project and his historical context. He and his work were situated between the classical and the medieval, between the philosophical dialogue and the theological vita -- at the overlap between two very different eras. For this if nothing else, The Confessions are worth a look. It won't be a fun read, even for theoryheads, but it remains of great historical interest....more
(8/10) I'm currently doing a doctoral project on graphic memoirs, and as one of the few monographs written on the subject Elisabeth El Refaie's Autobi(8/10) I'm currently doing a doctoral project on graphic memoirs, and as one of the few monographs written on the subject Elisabeth El Refaie's Autobiographical Comics was a natural selection. Instead of doing the usual comparative monograph, with individual chapters commenting on several texts in the genre in-depths, Refaie goes for a more comprehensive approach. She surveys 80+ graphic memoirs and presents a number of common themes and ideas among them. This an approach I'd like to see taken more often in academia, if only for variety -- it strikes me as a more defensible version of Franco Moretti's "distant reading". It also allows Refaie to include a lot of works outside of the most acclaimed and canonical memoirs.
The flip side of studying such a large number of texts is that you can never really go in depth with any of them, so if you're looking for a stunning close reading of any individual comic you'll have to look elsewhere. Because of the number of texts, Refaie spends a lot of space (in a fairly short book) introducing and re-introducing the plot details of each specific work. But what really shines through are the well-observed ideas about the roles of the body, the reader, and the artist's claim to authenticity within the graphic memoir. These claims are helped by the comprehensive textual evidence that demonstrates that they are more than just generalities. Autobiographical Comics is not likely to be the final word on any of these subjects, but it provides a good overview of an emerging genre, as well as a lot of useful frameworks for studying it....more
(7/10) I'm of two minds about Slow Violence. I wasn't particularly sold on ecocriticism as a critical method going into this book, and Nixon didn't qu(7/10) I'm of two minds about Slow Violence. I wasn't particularly sold on ecocriticism as a critical method going into this book, and Nixon didn't quite persuade me as to its importance. The concept is definitely intriguing, but I've let to see an ecocritical reading that really made me consider a text in a new light in the same way that feminist or materialist readings often have. Then again, I haven't really looked very hard, and perhaps I simply need more grounding to appreciate Nixon's book. While I enjoyed his reading of Animal's People, a lot of times Nixon seems to use literature simply as a framing device for discussing environmental issues. For instance, his reading of the Nadine Gordimer story is really a reading in name only, as he spends the entire section talking about Kruger Park and its significance (quite well, I might add) while only occasionally quoting from Gordimer. It's probably telling that the chapter I liked best, "Ecologies of the Aftermath", mentions books or other texts only in passing. There are also times when his arguments are too morally simplistic -- the frequently-mentioned contrast between "resource omnivores" and "systems people" too easily breaks down the world into greedy Westerners and the virtuous poor.
With that said, Nixon also develops a number of important concepts. I love the term "slow violence", which incorporates everything from systemic poverty to the erosion of the glaciers, and I support wholeheartedly Nixon's call to focus on it instead of the readily-available spectacle of "fast violence". I also appreciate how he undertakes textual analysis of nonfiction, in particular nonfiction with an obvious political end (as opposed to memoir or other forms which fit easier into standard English practice). Approaching political tracts with the same rigor and detail we approach novels isn't only a way to generate new scholarship, but helps to expand our frame of reference and reveal things to us (such as the environmental philosophies Nixon describes) that might have been obscured by a more limited frame of reference.
So while there were a lot of things I found frustrating about Slow Violence, ultimately it leaves me feeling as though a lot of new avenues have been opened up. Some of those avenues are simply criticizing the text, or perhaps doing it one better. But maybe that desire to jump in the conversation is the real goal of any academic book....more
(8/10) I did a review of this for a class I'm in, so I thought I may as well post it here and show off some of my more academic (read: pretentious) wr(8/10) I did a review of this for a class I'm in, so I thought I may as well post it here and show off some of my more academic (read: pretentious) writing. And hey, a Goodreads review with citations!
The relationship between racism and modernism is usually one that sits uncomfortably with scholars and critics. Frequently the anti-Semitism of Eliot or Pound, or the racism of Gaugin, is seen as an unfortunate product of their time, an unseemly blemish on an aesthetic mode that is at its core unrelated to questions of race. Walter Benn Michaels challenges that in Our America, using several canonical American modernist texts from the likes of Faulkner, Hemingway, and Cather as examples of a new racial ideology he calls modernist nativism. Under this model the early 20th century represented not a change in the intensity of racism but rather a crucial change in the way it operated and narrated itself.
At the core of modernist nativism, Michaels writes, is the substitution of questions of cultural difference for questions of racial inferiority, with both ultimately justifying the same system of racism. In it "identity becomes an ambition as well as a description" (Michaels 3). Michaels defines the underlying logic of nativism as pluralist -- that is, it does not oppose the existence of other cultures or suggest that they are inferior to (white, predominantly Anglo-Saxon male) American culture, but rather posits that all of these cultures should co-exist. Having established this theoretically universal and egalitarian position, nativism uses it to suggest that it is in fact white American culture that is under risk of being obliterated by waves of immigration and the pernicious influence of minorities. In asserting a pluralist worldview, Michaels argues that nativism attributes a unique culture to white Americans which is simultaneously essential to them and must be kept safe from dilution.
Michaels writes that "it was in terms of familial relations [...] that the new structures of identity were articulated" (6). Modernist novels prove a fertile resource for images of these familial relations. Michaels analyzes these novels as presenting the intermingling of nation-families through marriage and procreation as an incipient threat to American culture which could ultimately lead to a racially debased, dystopian future (the future seen in, for instance, Eliot's apocalyptic poetry). Often this threat to the purity of the family takes the form of an explicitly racialized character, such as Cather's Louie Marsellus and Hemingway's Robert Cohn, both Jews. Michaels goes further to suggests that even intermarriage with white families would lead to a dilution of the family's individual culture (thus suggesting the nation's wariness with provisionally white immigrants, recently limited by the Johsnon Act of 1924). Because of this, these novels develop alternatives through reproductive sexuality which allow the bloodline to remain pure, most notably incest, homosexuality, and celibacy.
This is perhaps the most intriguing of Michaels' ideas and one which seems at the same time paradoxical. The desire to preserve the nation and its culture, by this line of reasoning, leads to an obsession with purity that ensures the nation's failure to reproduce and, ultimately, its own doom. Michaels also presents an ideology in which racism leads to an approval of deviant sexuality, instead of our contemporary assumptions of it going hand in hand with heteronormativity. Of course, the fact that these queer or deviant relationships could for the most part only be expressed in literature through strong platonic bonds does bely Michaels' point -- if certain literary authors looked to it as a means of racial preservation, mainstream American culture still adamantly condemned it. But Michaels' larger point seems to be that the attempt to apply the same logics of incest and abstinence to the nation-state was just as paradoxical. Ultimately the effect of highlighting the queer aspects of nativism complicates any easy understanding of privilege and discrimination and challenges our understanding of the period's attitude towards racial and sexual minorities.
Michaels goes on to give examples of common tropes or concepts in which modernist nativism can be seen, such as miscegenation, "passing", or the appropriation of Aboriginal images, to more mixed results. His analysis of the Aboriginal in modernist literature, for instance, complicates the typical narrative of romanticization and exoticization by describing the roots of white desire to be like some fantastical truly-American Aboriginal. There are other times when Michaels' desire to complicate and contradict traditional ways of thinking about race leads to attacking genuinely progressive texts. For instance, he critiques Chesnutt and Hopkins' novels of interracial marriage and integration by accusing both of essentializing the mulatto as representing the spectral image of blackness, and as such dooming any attempt at integration before the start (60). But treating the mixed-race individual as black is only to acknowledge social reality, and if anything highlights the constructedness of race. This difficulty grappling with social construction will come back to haunt Michaels in his conclusion.
Michaels' methodology is almost as interesting as his arguments. Critics generally describe him as a New Historicist, and his first monograph was published in a series entitled "The New Historicism" edited by Stephen Greenblatt (Thomas 19). However, Brook Thomas argues that Michaels' work also draws heavily on deconstruction, and quotes him as arguing that "the deconstructive interest in the problematic of materiality in signification is not intrinsically ahistorical" (20). We can see this unlikely fusion in Our America: the overall thrust of the work is to ground modernist texts in the historical race relations which surrounded them, including both intellectual movements and concrete laws like the above-mentioned Johnson act. However, most of the body of the text consists of close readings of novels, a distinctly un-materialist approach. In these readings Michaels focuses on contradictions and conflicts within texts, highlighting how they often contradict their ostensibly progressive morals -- a clear deconstructive move, although as mentioned above it often slides into simple contrarianism. Notably, Michaels refers to a wide array of novels and other primary texts, but almost no scholarship or secondary sources. In part this suggests the pathbreaking notion of his argument, but it also displays a methodology which attempts to express material history as contained within literary history, with nothing needed to demonstrate this but the texts themselves.
Ultimately Michaels' arguments about racism in the early 20th century have clear implications for our understanding of racism today. Michaels suggests that the rhetoric of nativism, with its focus on cultural pluralism instead of biological superiority, is the dominant ideology under liberal capitalism. This hints at a broader critique of liberal "identity politics" that would be more fully expanded in his later work.
To some extent this is accurate. Racist groups have eagerly embraced the narrative of a vanishing white culture under siege from hoards of immigrants, most clearly in panic about Arabic immigration to Europe creating a culturally-dominated "Eurabia". It certainly is significant that even the Ku Klux Klan began using the slogan "Difference Not Inferiority" (Michaels 65). But outside of the paranoid racial fantasies of the far right assimilation, not the fear of it, now seems to be the primary factor by which racism operates. Liberal capitalism openly galvanizes the "model immigrant" who does their best to be indistinguishable from middle-class white citizens. Of course, the underside of this is the unassimilated immigrant or minority as a threat, but Michaels fails to recognize the way in which liberalism offers racialized individuals both carrot and stick.
His prime example of how nativism has informed modern political discourse is the fetishization of "culture" as a trait inherent of racial minorities and the primary object which anti-racism must be mobilized to defend. Michaels takes a fiercely anti-essentialist position here, for example, discussing the history of white artists appropriating black musical forms, he writes that "The idea that whites who learn to sing like blacks are stealing black culture thus depends upon the racialist idea that cultural identity is a function of racial identity" (129). Here it would be helpful if Michaels would name and quote those he criticizes instead of just referring to an ethereal mass of opinion. While certainly some anti-racists have essentialized the culture of racial minorities, many critics who express the concerns that Michaels lambasts are aware of race and racial culture as a social construct. But they also acknowledge that social constructs are awfully real to those living through them -- race is created through culture, in ways similar to what Michaels describes for most of the book. Michaels lambasts progressives' embrace of a "no-drop rule" in which anyone seen as black assumes black racial status (131), but this practice highlights the constructed status of race instead of obscuring it. The only alternative would be a naive colourblindness that fails to acknowledge the ways in which race exists as a social, if not biological, fact. As Robyn Weigman writes in her review of the book, "What use is it to say that identity makes no sense without engaging how and why identity has been mobilized in the first place?" (433).
Nevertheless, Michaels' book is a valuable intervention that provides a deeper and more nuanced analyses of racism as a phenomenon than one often sees in treatments of America's past. His readings of canonical modernist texts are remarkably unconventional, and there's a daring newness in reading The Great Gatsby in relation to The Clansmen. Unfortunately, the connections to contemporary racial politics he attempts to draw towards the end of the book are underdeveloped and don't hold up to much scrutiny. But as an analysis of a critical historical period and its literature Our America is challenging and compelling....more
(8/10) Everyone always quotes Arendt on the "banality of evil", the idea that evil can be accomplished through pettiness, small-mindedness, and bureau(8/10) Everyone always quotes Arendt on the "banality of evil", the idea that evil can be accomplished through pettiness, small-mindedness, and bureaucracy just as well as it can be through acotive malice. It's a good point, but it's also one that Arendt doesn't fully explain here, at least not explicitly. The phrase only gets mentioned once, in the book's postscript, and her explanation of it takes up no more than a paragraph. The strange and frightening character of Eichmann's evil is more implicit for the rest of the book. Arendt simply presents the facts and allows this phenomenon to naturally present itself.
Most of the text is a history of the Holocaust as seen through the life story of Adolph Eichmann, who had played a significant part in organizing it. Arendt brings out the detail and organizational complexity of the genocide, which has a history as tortured and partial as any other government initiative. This history also helps to bring out submerged facts: that the Hitler regime originally supported Zionism as a way to make their country Judenrein, or that a number of German-occupied countries were able to save their Jews from the Holocaust. This last bit is especially striking: at least in Arendt's telling of it, the system was not all-powerful, but rather shrank back from the least bit of resistance, making inaction its most crucial enabler. One doesn't usually expect to find inspiration in a book about the Holocaust, but it's here in a sense: the systems that oppress us from day to day are often a lot more fragile than we think, and would be nowhere without our collective co-operation.
Towards the end Arendt starts shifting from reportage to philosophy, and it's not really worth it. As if to make up for her earlier questioning of the trial, Arendt espouses a rather old-fashioned belief in punitive justice, and an unquestioning acceptance of Israel's claim to represent all Jews. Arendt's argument is better here where it's implicit. Still, the bulk of this book is a well-researched and harrowing story of the Holocaust told through an unique perspective, and overall I would say Eichmann in Jerusalem is deserving of its classic status....more
(8/10) An interesting early work of sociology that formulates the relationship between religious sentiment and economic development. It's unusual to s(8/10) An interesting early work of sociology that formulates the relationship between religious sentiment and economic development. It's unusual to see someone approach religion in a scientific matter as though it was a matter of course, without either apologies or intent to offend. Weber's liberal critique of capitalism only goes so far, but I think it's pretty accurate, making this one of those books you should check out both for historical import and because it still has something significant to say....more
(7/10) English is Broken Here is kind of a curious melange of forms centering around the experience of race in America, chiefly Fusco's own experience(7/10) English is Broken Here is kind of a curious melange of forms centering around the experience of race in America, chiefly Fusco's own experience as a Cuban-American. It follows in the tradition of This Bridge Called Our Back, mixing forms in order to appreciate multiple perspectives, the complexity of intersectionality, and the general concept of difference. Formally, it's quite interesting, much more so than your standard academic monograph.
I will admit that I found the more theoretical sections, as well as Fusco's personal reflections on her background, to be the most engaging. A lot of the book is dedicated towards modern art that deals with race, and it may just be my lack of interest in visual art, but I found it pretty dull. A lot of it seems less like analysis and more like promotion for Fusco and her friends. Your experience will probably differ -- the book's contents are varied enough that htere's sure to be something you're interested in and something you're not....more