(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
(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) Baudrillard is one of those guys who getts dismissed a lot as an obscure French academic, and he is all three of those things. But I think ther(8/10) Baudrillard is one of those guys who getts dismissed a lot as an obscure French academic, and he is all three of those things. But I think there's a kind of beauty to his writing that makes it more than just jargon. Baudrillard describes the world around us in terms of apocalyptic science fiction, drawing our eye to the way the horrific and the banal intersect in a world of illusion. The kind of juxtapositions and forceful rhetoric that he uses remind me more than a bit of J. G. Ballard, who Baudrillard explicitly cites as a prophetic author.
As far as the actual theory goes, it isn't much more than a rearticulation of Guy DeBord's ideas, but Baudrillard goes a bit further in describing the implications of the simulacrum in our contemporary society. Simulacra and Simulation is a series of essays, but it manages to both avoid redundancy and come together as a coherent work. Each essay refracts the core idea of simulation in a different context, ranging from the military-industrial complex to sci-fi novels.
Now's the point where I feel like I should disclaim that this book will probably be too difficult for those not used to the jargon of the humanities, but I'm not sure that's true. The language has a kind of beauty that meaning hides behind, but that makes it all the better. Baudrillard's core theories can be summed up in a paragraph. It's the journey to them that's entrancing....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
(6/10) I'm just not sure about this one. It seemed to slip through the sieves of my mind like a fog. Despite Kristeva's reputation for obscurity, this(6/10) I'm just not sure about this one. It seemed to slip through the sieves of my mind like a fog. Despite Kristeva's reputation for obscurity, this book uses mostly plain language to offer a review of the ideas that have gone into nationalism over time. It's certainly a well-read book, but I had a hard time grasping the overall flow of the argument: far from a straightforward polemic, Kristeva is content to trace geneaoligies and offer a hint of her own suggestions if you look hard enough. To some this will be a rewarding intellectual puzzle, but it took more effort than I was willing to spend, and I'm not sure there really is a worthwhile proposal under there beyond a lukewarm suggestion of cosmopolitanism. But maybe I'm just not French enough to get it....more
(7/10) Dewey is kind of the grandfather of the radical education movement, and being someone who never met a freeschool he didn't like I thought it wo(7/10) Dewey is kind of the grandfather of the radical education movement, and being someone who never met a freeschool he didn't like I thought it would be worth checking him out. As it happens, this book seems like almost a conscious attempt to move away from that radicalism and towards a kind of centrism, attacking both traditional education and radical pedagogy. There's some interesting stuff in here about experience as the centre of education, and I think that's a really valuable idea, although I'm not sure it follows that those who are more experienced should neccesarily have pedagogical authority. But too much of it is a kind of aggravating Goldilocks politics. Probably worth reading for its historical value, but don't expect a radical screed in support of democratic education....more
(8/10) I only understood about half of this book, but that half was pretty good. Under the guise of a cultural studies manifesto Grossberg actually en(8/10) I only understood about half of this book, but that half was pretty good. Under the guise of a cultural studies manifesto Grossberg actually ends up laying out a kind of master theory for how our contemporary socio-political situation functions, full of spinning parts and strange diagrams. It's a remarkably ambitious book, and it has some quite original ideas, to the extent where I think my failure to comprehend some of what's offered is due more to the complexity of the ideas than the obscurity of the writing.
Grossberg is constantly seeking to undermine dualistic notions of how the world works and other too-simple theories. At times this can be a bit annoying, where he reverts to a kind of Goldilocks "neither X nor Y" phrasing that obscures any significant meaning. When he does come up with new ways of thinking, based on not two ends of one spectrum but three, four, or more spectra and categories, I get the sense of a revelation on the precipice of my consciousness.
Half of the value of Cultural Studies in the Future Tense is the bibliography, an exhaustive reading-list for anyone who wants to get acquainted with contemporary theory. As one reads through the book it becomes apparent that Grossberg has read literally everything in his field and plenty in others, and that impressive knowledge enhances (as well as gives more authority to) his own theorizing.
This is a difficult book, perhaps the most difficult book I've read all year, but in the end I think it's worth it for anyone interested in cultural studies or a new academic understanding of modernity. But make sure to come prepared....more
(classic) Fever dreams can be some crazy shit. Sometimes you think God is talking to you and delivering a whole new theology. Less skeptically, Revela(classic) Fever dreams can be some crazy shit. Sometimes you think God is talking to you and delivering a whole new theology. Less skeptically, Revelations of Divine Love is a kind of mystical manifesto, laying out a more kind and liberal version of Christian theology in which love and mercy become the central aspects of the faith. It's a fascinating primary source, even if actually reading through it is a bit of a slog. I'm an angry atheist, but this is a more palatable (if not neccesarily more beleivable) version of religion, which for the fourteenth century makes it incredibly progressive. Unfortunately, the church failed to learn much about divine love, but this book still stands as an example of what could have been and what still can be....more
Hey Pete, you know what would be great? If you wouldn't phrase your defense of equality as "Well, women and blacks may be dumber than us white guys, bHey Pete, you know what would be great? If you wouldn't phrase your defense of equality as "Well, women and blacks may be dumber than us white guys, but we should treat them equally anyways." kthnx.
This is the same combination of smug intellectual remove and garbled popular science that reminds me why I stopped hanging out with philosophy majors....more
(8/10) With its sections that usually go on longer than a paragraph and generally coherent arguments, On the Genealogy of Morals seems to be the close(8/10) With its sections that usually go on longer than a paragraph and generally coherent arguments, On the Genealogy of Morals seems to be the closest thing Nietzsche comes to a "normal" book of philosophy. The work consists of three essays, all of which suggest a historical reason for ideas of morals. The key point here is that our value systems came out of historical circumstances, not an abstract knowledge of what's right. Don't be mistaken by my intro: these essays are still written in Nietzsche's poetic prose which (at least as translated by Kaufman) is obscure but beautiful, and a welcome change from the dryness of much philosophical writings. The only problems are when Nietzsche's own values and prejudices start to show through -- there's a rant against the evils of pity in here that sounds like it came right out of Ayn Rand. Maybe not essential philosophy, but still a good read with some important ideas....more
(5/10) Okay, let's get this out of the way: I'm not a dog person. Hate 'em. But even putting that aside, I didn't really see the point to this book. H(5/10) Okay, let's get this out of the way: I'm not a dog person. Hate 'em. But even putting that aside, I didn't really see the point to this book. Haraway wants to position the companion species as a kind of new model for humanity, and I think it's an idea worth looking at. But instead of doing that, Haraway spends most of the book simply reeling off facts about various dog breeds and training techniques. The value of this book is that it opens up a question that could help lead us to a more ecological way of living, but it refuses to really answer that question. As it is, it's mostly just evidence that once you're an Academic Name you can get any pet project (sorry) published, even if it's just going on about your hobbies for a hundred pages....more
(7/10) Zizek is kind of an academic rockstar right now, and it's easy to see why: he combines political radicalism, Lacan, and pop culture in a way th(7/10) Zizek is kind of an academic rockstar right now, and it's easy to see why: he combines political radicalism, Lacan, and pop culture in a way that's both exciting and mystifying, and his writing manages to be fairly accessible without seeming dumbed down. There are also a lot of genuine insights in this book concerning the current state of capitalism, and it's worth reading for them alone.
I do have to argue with a big part of Zizek's ideas here, and that's his condemnation of humanism based on its use to justify capitalism. There's a lot of railing against multiculturalism and feel-good "getting to know others" stuff, and while that's all well and good, it ignores the fact that a lot of this is right. We exist as personal beings as well as political one (with the two sides of course frequetnly blurring), and acknowledging that even the worst political actors have personal lives and goals (Zizek provides the example of the Nazi officer who loved Mozart) does not mean that we should ignore the personal element. In the end this becomes the hoary old Marxist diatribe about how class war is the only real thing and everything else is just a distraction. Zizek tries to argue his way back from this position, but in doing so he just ends up creating a bunch of contradictions (why is it okay to gloss over British working-class xenophobes' prejudices but not Muslim fundamentalists'?).
With that said, as long as Zizek stays away from these contrarian tendencies of proving himself as the ultimate socialist by being against everything liberals stand for, he makes some pretty good analysis. I would advise watching some of his speeches available on Youtube instead of reading this book, however, as they contain the same ideas down to sometimes a word-to-word basis, and Zizek is a much more magnetic speaker than he is a writer. (For instance, he manages to mangle a joke in this book that he nailed in a live speech.) An interesting character for sure....more
(6/10) I'm not really sure how to rate philosophy books -- I always feel completely out of my depth. This is partly Agamben's elusive style, which cou(6/10) I'm not really sure how to rate philosophy books -- I always feel completely out of my depth. This is partly Agamben's elusive style, which could be criticized as simply obscuritan, but also achieves a kind of poetry. Of the ideas I comprehended, some were insightful and some were less so, but who knows how much I misunderstood. For philosophy nerds only....more
Too old to rate. Reading this in a yellowed library book, with edges of the pages flaking off and falling into my lap as I read, Gorgias made a strongToo old to rate. Reading this in a yellowed library book, with edges of the pages flaking off and falling into my lap as I read, Gorgias made a strong argument, more unintentionally than intentionally, for the uselessness of rhetoric. Time has turned Plato's wisdom into despotism and Socrates' humility into a shield to hide his philosophy's flaws behind. Does Plato still offer anything to teach us today, not merely as history but as genuine philosophy? A lot of what he says are certainly good points -- for instance, that it's better to suffer evil than to do it -- but his reasoning seems shaky to a modern reader (or at least this one). Strangely enough, Plato's main value may be literary -- he does a great job of sketching characters simply by the way they argue.
I enjoyed Gorgias more than Meno, the other Platonic dialogue I've read, mainly because it seems like a more complete work and, unlike epistemology, modern science hasn't affected early thought about ethics or rhetoric much. Plato's brand of ethics is in many cases abhorrent to the modern min, but it was what every philosopher since has responded to, so it's important for anyone interested in the meaning of good to understand....more
No ranking because it's old, and stodgy old books like this are best read as primary sources and not to explain the world. Anyway, in this dialogue PlNo ranking because it's old, and stodgy old books like this are best read as primary sources and not to explain the world. Anyway, in this dialogue Plato has his mentor and stand-in Socrates debating a sophist named Meno about what virtue is, which eventually gets derailed into a discussion of how we can know what anything is. It's interesting to see that relativism pops up so early in philosophical thought. Plato rejects the idea that we can't know anything, but the idea he comes up with, that we are born omniscient and simply have to remember what we've forgotten, seems pretty mystical and unfounded.
The dialogue format is also interesting, as it's something that's been abandoned in this kind of writing, Godel Escher Bach aside. (The "exchange of monologues" storytelling still exists in fiction -- you can see it in gambling manga and Ayn Rand novels.) By setting his philosophical work as a debate between two characters Plato places it between the fictional and non-fictional. The fact that Socrates was a real person and Meno represented a real school of philosophers makes things further complicated. On one level this is very convenient for Plato, as he can have events occur which "prove" his theories, like Socrates teaching the slave boy some geometrical principle. (I couldn't grasp it and it's probably not even right.) But at the same time it reduces what he writes from fact to opinion. I think it really helps Meno at least, as instead of just stating his conclusions Plato shows how he worked towards them, which supports his idea that we learn (or rather remember) things through practice.
Like I said, Meno won't unlock the secrets of the universe for you, but it does show one of the first attempts to grapple with the questions of knowledge and virtue....more
This is an original and insightful book of philosophy that lives up to its lofty title. What Arendt deals with here is what politics should be about -This is an original and insightful book of philosophy that lives up to its lofty title. What Arendt deals with here is what politics should be about -- not manufactured wedge issues but the very way we live our lives.
The real strength of The Human Condition is how Arendt manages to escape the limits of conventional ideology. She doesn't easily fit into any political classification, nor does she propose a concrete program of reform. Instead she looks at the changes in human activity and how it has been perceived and regulated throughout time. In doing so this book is both an overview of Western political thought and a striking analysis of it. Arendt reveals the political value systems so important that we don't even realize we believe them.
With that said, this is still a 350 page book of philosophy, and as such is not really the most accessible thing in the world. I would recommend having at least some backing in classical and Marxist political thought, which Arendt draws on and critiques. While Arendt's prose style isn't the hardest to understand (there are much more obscuritan philosophers than her) it does take some effort. I didn't agree with all of the ideas presented in The Human Condition (her description of the "animal laborans" was somewhat classist, for instance), but they were interesting ideas nonetheless, and a conversation about these ideas would be much more valuable than the soundbite wars of modern politics.
All in all, The Human Condition is a challenging but ultimately rewarding read....more