(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
(7/10) After a prologue that tells the story of residential schooling in a mythical, almost fairy-tale way, Porcupines and China Dolls jumps right int(7/10) After a prologue that tells the story of residential schooling in a mythical, almost fairy-tale way, Porcupines and China Dolls jumps right into the visceral and the raunchy. Over the next hundred pages Alexie expertly depicts a Northern Aboriginal town full of people and relationships, most of them heavily dysfunctional, and with the whole town caught in an endless rhythm of alcoholism and meaningless sex. Alexie's greatest feat in this novel is depicting the town as a believable, if very dark, human ecosystem. What's more, he makes it clear how the social decay of Aberdeen, NWT is a direct result of Canada's economic and social policies towards First Nations people over the past century, most notably the scarring trauma of residential schools.
And then the plot comes along. Characters confront their demons, the story seemingly reaches a climax, then the resolution starts to fall apart, and then there's a second, more tentative resolution. Throughout Alexie's style is hyperbole and maximalism, exemplified by the chapter in which a healing workshop and the disclosing of sexual abuse is described as an epic battle, but also in the endless sexual and bodily debasement. It's striking and at least initially fun to read, but after a while it starts to come off as kind of gimmicky. The climax and resolution also seemed distinctly unnatural -- we're presented at first with a hopeless cycle, and then it suddenly stops being hopeless and people start being able to face their problems, for reasons that are unclear.
It's a very strange thing to say, but I would have preferred to stay in the hopeless Aberdeen of the first half of the novel for a little longer. It could have made for a great rural noir, although that's clearly not the story that Alexie wanted to tell. The story he does tell is heavy-handed to the point of didacticism, although the style and huamnity Alexie does it with make it something a bit more. A flawed novel, but definitely an interesting entry into the corpus of Aboriginal literature....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
(too old to rate) Silence is a very odd duck. At first glance it would appear to be a feminist medieval scholar's wet dream: a girl is raised as a boy(too old to rate) Silence is a very odd duck. At first glance it would appear to be a feminist medieval scholar's wet dream: a girl is raised as a boy, becomes a knight, and basicall kicks everyone's ass. And from that perspective it is pretty interesting, and reflects a perspective on gender that one doesn't usually associate with the Middle Ages. There are times, oddly enough, when the author even seems to forget his protagonist is female. But there are also attempts to undercut the transgressive nature of the text: Silence is an exception, she's powered by strange magics, she's better than all those other slatternly women, etc. And then there's the ending, which is just pretty hard to take. Still, it represents an interesting quasi-queer lens on the medieval romance, and that's not nothing....more
(too old to rate) As much as we may like to act like trashy lowbrow culture was invented by MTV and Stephanie Meyer, it actually goes back at least as(too old to rate) As much as we may like to act like trashy lowbrow culture was invented by MTV and Stephanie Meyer, it actually goes back at least as far as Serious Literachur. Case in point: Havelok the Dane, a bawdy medieval romance filled with fighting, drinking, noble heroes, treacherous usurpers, and weird repetition. It's more than a bit reminiscent of a Tom Clancy novel, both in its appeal to unreconstructed masculinity and its propagandistic function of re-narrating an oppressive state as an association of underdog heroes.
So yeah, not terribly intellectual business, even for its day, but there are some legitimately enjoyable parts in here, like where Havelok beats up a ton of guys with a door. If nothing else, it's worth checking out just to see a side of medieval lit you usually never hear about....more
(8/10) It's almost hard to know where to start with The Caryatids -- it's a big messy novel, overflowing with ideas and characters, and one could quic(8/10) It's almost hard to know where to start with The Caryatids -- it's a big messy novel, overflowing with ideas and characters, and one could quickly get lost in plot recap. Bruce Sterling offers up a vision of a post-apocalyptic, almost post-governmental future, set in a ruined but not wothless world.
The titular Caryatids, a set of identical clones, are the viewpoint characters that allow us to see the different aspects of this society, but they're also more than that. Each character is developed enough that by the end of her section you're nodding along about how all of the others are terrible people. Their status as clones also suggests a kind of perfect-world nature-versus-nurture experiment: the clones, in all of their messed-up glory, reflect their different cultures perfectly.
Like I said, it's big and messy, with some of the ideas not fully thought out and a lot of overly-cute or overly-dramatic writing. But it's also pretty damn interesting. If you're the type of science-fiction fan who babbles on and on about what the world's going to be like in a hundred years, you might like a nice chat with Bruce Sterling....more
(10/10) So yeah, this was predictably great. The Lathe of Heaven is a kind of meta-science fiction that carefully examines the possibilities and probl(10/10) So yeah, this was predictably great. The Lathe of Heaven is a kind of meta-science fiction that carefully examines the possibilities and problems of utopian thinking. The novel unfolds as a strange battle of wills between Orr, always passive and uncertain, and Haber, an ur-masculine idealist who suddenly finds himself with the ability to reshape the world. It's a fascinating dialectic -- Orr is clearly meant to be more sympathetic, but at the same time it's hard to deny the validity of Haber's goals. And then there's the way science-fiction tropes seem to crop up independently, disrupting the stern seriousness of Haber's utopianism, and the commentary on dreams and reality, and a whole bunch of other aspects I can't begin to approach here. Really, this is a sci-fi classic that everyone should read....more
(8/10) This is the second book I've read in a couple months titled "Scar Tissue". Get some more original titles, peeps. That aside, this is a pretty s(8/10) This is the second book I've read in a couple months titled "Scar Tissue". Get some more original titles, peeps. That aside, this is a pretty solid book of poetry. I was a little unsure in the beginning, feeling that the poems were too too abstract and had just a trace of Orientalism, but after that it picked up, especially in the third section. Wright, like every American poet you've never heard of, has a list of accolades as long as his arm and he mostly lives up to them here. He definitely falls neatly into the American poetic tradition, with Wallace Stevens being a clear inspiration, and Wright taking his own stab at the questions of representation and truth that have bedeviled America's poets for at least century. He doesn't solve those questions, but the point isn't to solve them -- it's to create something meaningful in the process, and Wright certainly has....more
**spoiler alert** (4/10) I guess I liked the idea of htis book a lot more than I did the book itself. The Reluctant Fundamentalist details the convers**spoiler alert** (4/10) I guess I liked the idea of htis book a lot more than I did the book itself. The Reluctant Fundamentalist details the conversion of a Pakistani immigrant into a free-market businessman and back again, but it seems to believe a lot more in the former conversion. We get an exhaustive seduction of Changez (yes, that is his real name) to the business world, with the narrative swooning over the perks of high society and making businessmen look a lot cooler and more skill-driven tha nit actually is. Changez is, of course, the best at everything and gets a hot but unstable American girlfriend who has a bunch of problems I never cared about. By the end of this short novel he becomes disillusioned, but this is a lot vaguer than his entry into the business world, almost as if Hamid is afraid to go too far in condemning American capitalism. There's also a troubling focus on authenticity in opposition to immigration: there's no clear reason at the end why Changez can't keep living in NYC and just not work on Wall Street, except that the novel suggests that would make him some kind of traitor.
This would be a bit more forgivable if the novel was well-written, but a particularly aggravating second-person frame narrative and some egnerally awkward prose don't help matters any. This is a nice, well-intentioned attempt at a literary examination of diasporic experience and responsibilities, but ultimately a failed one....more
(8/10) This is a complex book about a complex, perhaps intentionally obscure, system. LiPuma and Lee lay out the world of financial derivatives and ex(8/10) This is a complex book about a complex, perhaps intentionally obscure, system. LiPuma and Lee lay out the world of financial derivatives and explain not just why they're important but the new way of thinking about finance and the world that they represent. There's something bigger being hinted at here -- a world composed not of nations or even corporations but of constantly uncertain flows. It's a hard perspective to describe, which is perhaps why it seems to linger as background radiation in this book instead of being a front-and-centre thesis.
LiPuma and Lee say at the onset that they want to make this opaque subject matter transparent, and they do to an extent -- those in the humanities and social sciences who are used to theoretical writing will find this an accessible guide to the subject. But ultimately they seem to have translated it from one field's jargon to another. Not that I'm against jargon, and I find there's even a kind of beauty in overheated theoryspeak. But this is an academic text, not really for the lay reader. Still, it's a pretty damn good academic text, and the (fairly narrow) audience it aims at will be well served....more
(6/10) Maybe it's just because I read this all in a nightmarish late-night fugue because I had to have it done for class the next day, but I didn't ge(6/10) Maybe it's just because I read this all in a nightmarish late-night fugue because I had to have it done for class the next day, but I didn't get much out of this. Shakespeare's comedies are generally hit-or-miss with me, and this one tended more towards quips and obscure courtly humour than I prefer. Of course, the language is fantastic, and there are a lot of critical ideas in here that seem obvious to us now, but that's Shakespeare for you. This also might be a lot funnier when performed, or read in a better state of mind. Based on my admittedly imperfect reading experience, though, I'm classifying this one as only for the completionists and the scholars. If you've already read the dozen-plus great Shakesperean plays, though, you may as well give this one a try....more
(6/10) I wanted to like this one a lot more than I did. Nalo Hopkinson has some decent ideas, some strong characters, and as a woman of colour is a ra(6/10) I wanted to like this one a lot more than I did. Nalo Hopkinson has some decent ideas, some strong characters, and as a woman of colour is a rare and valuable voice in science fiction. But something about her writing style, at least in this book, didn't click with me. Brown Girl in the Ring isn't marketed as YA, but the prose kind of felt like the simplified language you get in that genre, which I really don't like. The plot, after getting off to a strong start, also eventually turns into a standard fantasy adventure with some unique trappings. I'm still interested in Hopkinson as an author, and this certainly isn't bad, but it wasn't as enthralling as I had hoped....more
(too old to rate) Ever wonder what Renaissance dudes thought a dude should be like? Worry no more, because Baldesar Castiglione is here to teach you v(too old to rate) Ever wonder what Renaissance dudes thought a dude should be like? Worry no more, because Baldesar Castiglione is here to teach you via Platonic dialogue. This certainly isn't a page-turner, and is frequently quite dull, but as a historical document it's fascinating, if only for the ridiculous amount of expectations that get placed on the ideal courtier's shoulders. This is one of those "does what it says on the tin" books, which doesn't make it a must-read classic, but is still worth looking at for those interested in courtliness and this period of history....more