[Update, Jan 28, 2013: In response to a comment by Claudine Frank, the editor of The Edge of Surrealism, I have removed from this review a passage in[Update, Jan 28, 2013: In response to a comment by Claudine Frank, the editor of The Edge of Surrealism, I have removed from this review a passage in which I mistakenly characterize "The Structure and Nature of Totalitarian Regimes" as having been constructed from notes made by attendees at Caillois's lectures rather than as having been authored by Caillois himself. For Frank's comment and my response, please see the comments section following this review.]
While popularly known for its melting clocks and psychic automatisms, the Surrealist movement had an academic side as well, perhaps best represented in work by theorists like Georges Bataille and his College of Sociology colleague Roger Caillois. The latter is probably best known for “The Praying Mantis,” an essay on analogues in abnormal human psychology and myth of the mating ritual of the cephalophagic insect. That essay is included in The Edge of Surrealism, along with others on a variety of subjects such as secret societies, Satanism, Paris, and “the noon complex.”
The essays are organized chronologically such that one can trace the development of Caillois’s thought as it was shaped both by his personal experiences and by larger historical events. For instance, one text entitled “The Structure and Nature of Totalitarian Regimes” represents a series of lectures Caillois gave in 1940 in which he discussed the sociological and cultural meanings of the fascist movement that had been gaining power in Europe through the previous decade.
One can also trace the maturing of Caillois’s literary style through this book: while the writing in the early essays can sometimes be a little mechanical or clunky, somewhere around the middle of the book a much more flowing and poetic style emerges that seems to gain in polish and self-assurance from one essay to the next.
As a thinker, Caillois is an interdisciplinarian, typically employing in his writings ideas from many different fields including sociology, psychology, biology, history and political science. In some of his later essays, Caillois reflects on his own methods and argues for the significance of interdisciplinarity in academic research (while employing interdisciplinary techniques to make his argument, as in “The Bridgemaker,” which juxtaposes ideas from architecture, etymology, Roman history and anthropology, among other disciplines, in order more fully to explore the issue under discussion).
For each essay, editor Claudine Frank includes an introductory note supplying cultural and intellectual context. If I have a problem with the book, it is with these notes, which sometimes seem to me enthymematic in their alluding to issues and events that might be familiar to an audience already acquainted with Caillois’s work, but not to the general reader in need of a little more expository detail. For the essays, though, this book is a good general introduction to Caillois’s thought....more
In Rings of Saturn, Sebald writes about Joseph Conrad, Chinese Empress Tzu Hsi, a matchstick model of Jerusalem, the herring industry, and a number ofIn Rings of Saturn, Sebald writes about Joseph Conrad, Chinese Empress Tzu Hsi, a matchstick model of Jerusalem, the herring industry, and a number of other subjects, each of which is connected in some way to the history and character of East Anglia. The book is interesting not only for what Sebald has to say about these things (or about Thomas Browne’s skull or Michael Hamburger’s studio room) but also for the way Sebald mixes together the historical, the journalistic, the autobiographical and even the novelistic in a prose that is fluent and languorous....more
In his discussion of the language of comics, Scott McCloud describes how the techniques cartoonists deploy function to represent non-visual and kinetiIn his discussion of the language of comics, Scott McCloud describes how the techniques cartoonists deploy function to represent non-visual and kinetic information in a medium that is visual and static. McCloud employs the comic book form to express his argument; the great advantage for the reader is that he or she is shown rather than told the techniques comic books deploy to represent such things as the passage of time or the smell of a rotten tomato. McCloud analyzes the medium as an art form, commenting on realism in comics, and on the styles of individual cartoonists. While most of his examples are from North American cartoonists, McCloud includes examples of Japanese cartoons, particularly in his comments on East-West differences in style and technique. There is some discussion of comics in relation to art and culture, but McCloud’s emphasis here is on theorizing how, in addition to visual information, the comic book communicates such things as sounds, feelings, and action. I started reading this while at a friend’s house; by about page 50 I found that I was enjoying the book so much that I told my friend I would have to get a copy of my own, which I have since done. A great book not only for cartoonists and fans of the comic book medium, but for critics and theorists as well....more
Jameson is always a challenging thinker, as much for his capacity for dialectical thought as for his authoritative grasp of the different fields of knJameson is always a challenging thinker, as much for his capacity for dialectical thought as for his authoritative grasp of the different fields of knowledge—history, philosophy, French theory, Marxism, architecture, finance capital—to which he makes reference in the construction of his arguments. In this book, as in Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Jameson deploys a Marxist analysis of postmodern culture, arguing that this latter supplies an approach to a reading of the contemporary historical moment which he characterizes, following Ernest Mandel, as “late capitalist.”
The book begins with the much-anthologized essay “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” which first appeared in New Left Review and introduced readers to Jameson’s thought on postmodernism. Later expanded and appearing in its revised form as the first chapter of Postmodernism, the essay is a kind of overview of postmodern culture, exploring among other things what postmodern literature suggests about the blurring of high and low culture in the contemporary moment, what films like Star Wars or Chinatown suggest about our sense of our history, and what contemporary architecture might reflect of our experience of postmodern space. The second essay, “Theories of the Postmodern,” was also revised and expanded for Postmodernism; here, Jameson supplies an instance of what he has elsewhere termed “metacommentary,” discussing not postmodernism itself but rather analyzing how this has been theorized by other thinkers such as Jurgen Habermas, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Manfredo Tafuri. A third essay that was subsequently expanded (appearing in its revised form in The Seeds of Time) is “The Antinomies of Postmodernity,” an analysis of transformations in the categories of space and time through the modern and postmodern moments.
Because of the challenging forms Jameson employs to express his ideas in the later versions of these essays, I find it extremely useful to have these earlier versions, in which his thought seems more accessible, because it is in a comparatively rudimentary form.
The essay “Marxism and Postmodernism” is sort of like a break after the rigors of the first three essays: while it, too, is a theoretical work, exploring the relations between the two topics mentioned in the title, it is as personal an essay as I have ever seen from Jameson, who writes here in response to those commentators who had assumed, incorrectly, that Jameson’s beginning his work on postmodernism signified his movement away from Marxist thought.
Following this, we return to the rarefied heights of postmodern theory. I can but scratch the surface of “‘End of Art’ or ‘End of History’?“ in describing it as an essay in which Jameson adds another level of complexity to his analysis of postmodernism by deploying not only Marxist but Hegelian thought as well in an exploration of two ideas associated with postmodernism, i.e. the “end of art” (see, for instance, Arthur Danto’s book) and the “end of history,” a phrase most closely associated in the postmodern moment with Francis Fukuyama. Moreover, here Jameson employs a reading of the contemporary moment as a comment on Hegel, noting which of the philosopher’s predictions with respect to history turned out to be correct, which turned out to be wrong, and what may have been the causes of Hegel’s mistakes in the latter instances.
“Transformations of the Image in Postmodernity” is another dense, complex and highly theoretical essay. One passage in particular, in which Jameson employs Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, Alain Robbe-Grillet and a number of other writers in an analysis of “image culture” I found particularly entertaining.
In the last two essays, Jameson employs the notion of finance capital as a term with which to mediate postmodern culture with capitalism. “Culture and Finance Capital” is the more general of the two, while “The Brick and the Balloon: Architecture, Idealism and Land Speculation” is an exploration of what contemporary architecture reflects of the postmodern moment. ...more
A book of fragments, literary quotes (mostly the high modernists, James Joyce, William Butler Yeats and T.S. Eliot linked by McLuhan's gnomic commentaA book of fragments, literary quotes (mostly the high modernists, James Joyce, William Butler Yeats and T.S. Eliot linked by McLuhan's gnomic commentaries. However, this is not a book of literary criticism; it is an analysis of media, and still relevant today, forty years after it was written, largely because of the way that McLuhan's thought is a useful tool for understanding how the Internet and related technologies have transformed the way we think and communicate....more
Marshall McLuhan is the Canadian media theorist who became famous in the sixties for coining phrases like “global village” and “the medium is the messMarshall McLuhan is the Canadian media theorist who became famous in the sixties for coining phrases like “global village” and “the medium is the message.” His work remains important for understanding the cultural changes as new technologies like the Internet transform our ways of getting information and communicating with one another. This book includes essays, letters, interviews, aphorisms and excerpts from McLuhan’s books. Moreover, it deploys various devices of the printed page: double columns, different font sizes and reproductions of advertisements (reflecting McLuhan’s argument that print culture necessarily changes with the introduction of the electronic media). The editors have selected and organized the material for maximum clarity; sometimes the same ideas are repeated, but in different contexts, and because of this redundancy, the reader is supplied with several different approaches to concepts like “hot” and “cold” media and media as environment. McLuhan is a student of modernist literature, and of James Joyce in particular, and there is a lot of Joycean wordplay in his style. ...more
A very entertaining book, particularly the essay critiquing the over-enthusiastic appropriation of the themes and jargon of cyber culture, and the essA very entertaining book, particularly the essay critiquing the over-enthusiastic appropriation of the themes and jargon of cyber culture, and the essay describing the legal battle between a photographer of sentimental pictures and a postmodern artist who parodied one of the photographer’s pictures....more
This is one of those books that is not easily classified. I found it in the science section of my favorite used bookstore (and there is a lot of inforThis is one of those books that is not easily classified. I found it in the science section of my favorite used bookstore (and there is a lot of information in this book about subjects typically associated with science--the animal kingdom, the stars, circadian rhythms...) but the book could as easily have been shelved in the poetry section--not only because of some of the other topics in the book (romantic poetry, fireworks, dreaming) but also because of the lyrical and vividly imagistic style of the writing.
A very informative book, and a great reading experience--I think few reading Dewdney's book will feel that their time was wasted....more
Isaacs has written a non-academic, non-threatening book that might appeal to those who want to learn more about feminist thought, but would rather notIsaacs has written a non-academic, non-threatening book that might appeal to those who want to learn more about feminist thought, but would rather not read some theoretical text whose claims are so abstract as to be almost inaccessible.
While Isaacs makes some good points, her thought and style are rather lightweight--it's unlikely there'll be controversy over the claims she makes (one exception is her claim that the characters Thelma and Louise in the movie by that name are "wimpettes"--this surprising assertion is one passage in the book that has remained with me since reading it).
In contrast to the conventional academic work of cultural criticism, Isaacs's style is colloquial, almost militantly so (late in the text, the "sentence" "Not on your life" appears twice in as many pages). In general, her discussion is at about the level of a movie review in People magazine. At times, however, it can be as awkward as an undergraduate essay....more
A good variety of articles--some more abstract and technical, some relatively straightforward. There is some discussion of the representation of womenA good variety of articles--some more abstract and technical, some relatively straightforward. There is some discussion of the representation of women in films, and of women in the film industry (i.e. directors); however, the main emphasis of the articles here appears to be on women in the film audience, and their subjective experience of pleasure as they watch films.
One thing that makes this book particularly useful is its inclusion of Laura Mulvey's essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Many of the articles in the text make reference to Mulvey's essay, so it is great to have the essay included in this book for easy reference.
It should be pointed out that many of the essays take a psychoanalytic approach, so one's enjoyment of the book may depend on how one feels about Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan (however, there is one article that employs the ideas of Julia Kristeva, and another one or two that make reference to Helene Cixous, so there's at least some psychoanalytic thought that is more feminist in its approach represented in the text).
In many instances, the authors of the different articles made references to films I had not heard of before. Often, different authors would be talking about the same films, so that by the time I had finished the book, I felt I knew something about the films that had been described. Now I'm very interested in seeing these films for myself. That fact, on its own, suggests that overall the book left me with a very positive impression....more
The first essay in this book was the one I liked best--an analysis of reactions in modern French philosophy, psychoanalysis, poetry and theater to theThe first essay in this book was the one I liked best--an analysis of reactions in modern French philosophy, psychoanalysis, poetry and theater to the murder of a woman and her daughter by their two maids.
Most of the other essays are on a more conventional cultural level--discussing women accused of murder in terms of how they are represented in the popular media (newspapers, tabloids, films) and in the legal system. While much of the book is at the level of a "true crime" work, at times it gets theoretical, with mention, for instance, of Jacques Derridaor the signifier/ signified split.
With the exception of the French women in the first essay, the discussion of femme fatales in Hollywood films, and an essay on Aileen Wuornos, most of the essays are about British or Australian women.
One thing the book could have done with is some pictures of the women discussed. Both the first and the second essay begin with descriptions of famous photographs of the accused. Although it is possible to find the photographs online with a Google search, it would have been more convenient (and would have made more sense, insofar as there is emphasis on the photographs) to include reproductions of the pictures described in the book....more
Two things stand out about this book. First is Haskell's detailed knowledge of film, which is reflected not only in her discussions of the narrative eTwo things stand out about this book. First is Haskell's detailed knowledge of film, which is reflected not only in her discussions of the narrative events represented in the films, but also in her her vivid descriptions of the images from some of the films. In addition, her study includes a great amount of detail about the history of film in America, including information about the star system, the biographies of different actresses, and discussions of the relations between some actresses and their directors.
The second thing that stands out about this book is Haskell's non-polemical approach to her subject. In her introduction, she writes: "I consider myself a film critic first and a feminist second..." and this is reflected in the way she discusses American film. In addition to criticizing those films that represent women as weak, or as vamps, or as virgins (or as some combination of these), Haskell points out those instances in which women are portrayed as strong and independent (for Haskell, Katherine Hepburn frequently shows these qualities in her roles). In this respect, Haskell takes a very "fair and balanced" approach to the film industry in America--noting that while some films are sexist, not all of them are.
Much of Haskell's study is at the level of description, however. That is, there is little analysis or theorizing here, which is particularly evident in a chapter in which she calls attention to the contrasts between the ways women are portrayed in American film and the ways they are portrayed in European film. She makes some interesting points, but I would have liked to have seen some comment as to the possible reasons for the differences between American and European cinema with regard to their respective representations of women....more
Much of what De Rougemont discusses here should be familiar to readers who have already read Joseph Campbell's Creative Mythology. However, De RougemoMuch of what De Rougemont discusses here should be familiar to readers who have already read Joseph Campbell's Creative Mythology. However, De Rougemont goes in a significantly different direction in his interpretation of the meaning of the medieval Tristan and Isolde legend. Where Campbell is Jungian in his approach, reading the myth as an expressive archetype, De Rougemont is rigorously historicist, arguing that the myth does not so much reflect transhistorical predispositions of the human mind, but that it is a construct emerging out of a nexus of social forces unique to particular time in history. The surprising thing is how the modern concept of love derives not from something universal in the human being, but from the social realities of the historical moment De Rougemont analyzes. A very impressive and scholarly work. ...more
I cannot comment authoritatively on Horowitz's writing with regard to the composers, conductors and dancers he discusses, as I am unfamiliar with theiI cannot comment authoritatively on Horowitz's writing with regard to the composers, conductors and dancers he discusses, as I am unfamiliar with their works. However, I am familiar with some of the films and directors he writes about, so I was able to follow his commentary on the work of directors like Lang and Murnau somewhat more closely, and found this part of the book very interesting reading....more
This book is more about the history of knowledge than the history of clinics. Specifically, Foucault, a historian of knowledge (which latter is sometiThis book is more about the history of knowledge than the history of clinics. Specifically, Foucault, a historian of knowledge (which latter is sometimes termed “episteme” in his work) analyzes the changes in the way medical and clinical knowledge was organized in the modern era (beginning with the Enlightenment). He discusses texts of the period to show how theorists and clinicians of the day interpreted disease and its relation to symptoms and to causes....more
Gaggi discusses postmodernism in terms of literature (John Fowles and John Barth), film (Jean-Luc Godard and Ingmar Bergman), painting (M.C. Escher) aGaggi discusses postmodernism in terms of literature (John Fowles and John Barth), film (Jean-Luc Godard and Ingmar Bergman), painting (M.C. Escher) and theory. A good introductory-level book on the subject. ...more
The book of the film that explores the life and some of the work of noted intellectual Noam Chomsky. The film focuses on Chomsky’s comments with regarThe book of the film that explores the life and some of the work of noted intellectual Noam Chomsky. The film focuses on Chomsky’s comments with regard to media and how the dominant order employs it to distract the masses from important social issues. The book includes the entire verbal portion of the film (dialogues, interviews, lectures, voice-over narration) as well as still images from some of its scenes. As a bonus, inside the back cover is a set of philosopher trading cards, complete with portraits and statistics....more