RECENT REVIEWS & ENDORSEMENTS
Brave New Avant Garde
Marc James Léger
“Canadian artist and theorist Marc James Léger’s recent collection of essays, Brave New Avant Garde, is … a timely attempt to bring thinking on avant-gardism to bear on this resurgence [of socially engaged art]. As Léger frames the matter towards the end of his book, the present decoupling of activist art and the discourse of avant-gardism may speak to the possibility that ‘extra-institutional socially engaged art has become, for good and bad, the order of the day’.”
“Elaborating a theoretical framework of sinthomeopathic art across seven closely linked essays, Léger’s book argues that practices as diverse as those of Fraser, Thomas Hirschhorn, Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK), Christoph Schlingensief, Komar and Melamid and The Yes Men are all marked by an over-identification with the ‘pathological particularity of culture in the age of late neoliberal capitalism’.”
“Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of art’s central role in the reproduction of class inequality is a key touchstone for Léger’s book. Hence, his polemic is ... directed against ... the disappearance of the problematic of class at work in the ‘post-structural reduction of art to a cultural politics of representation’.”
~ Bill Roberts, Mute online
Holes In The Whole
Holes in the Whole is a welcome contribution to an increasingly crowded field of writing on cities. The book is a short but always a stimulating read, provoking questions and offering flashes of insight. Fighting against city-making that is too often captured by the “totalitarian logic of profit” and the focus on constructing urban political institutions that respond to a wider range of inhabitants’ demands is important in making us think of urban dwellers as true ‘citizens’ of their cities. ~ Karl Baker, LSE http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/lsereviewofbooks/2013/05/15/book-review-holes-in-the-whole-introduction-to-the-urban-revolutions/
Gavin James Bower
Praise for Gavin James Bower's debut novel, Dazed & Aroused:
'Less Than Zero for the Off-Beat Generation'
'A writer with the ability to cut through the hype and reveal the dark heart of everyday life'
'A stunning debut novel'
Andrew Gallix, FLUX
Praise for Made in Britain:
'A poignant tale of the "feral underclass"...what makes the book special is its portrayal of the particular fates of three teenagers who stand for a generation while being utterly and completely themselves'
Jenn Ashworth, Guardian
'In a world of closed factories and stinking canals, of sex in the school loos, of knives and drugs and moral and economic disintegration, this novel could have been one enormous cliché. It isn’t, though. While not excusing, or attempting to excuse, its protagonists it does succeed in explaining and humanising them. A visceral look at modern society...it will haunt the reader'
'Our disgustingly out of touch prime minister would do well to read this shocking, heart-wrenching tale of no-hope in the recession hit, morally devalued North'
'A beautifully written story of post-industrial youth'
Owen Jones, author of CHAVS
'Drugs and sex and violence are simply something to pass the time with in places where manufacturing has died. This novel doesn’t shy away from the unpretty racial tension, either. It’s a lean book about having to survive but not quite letting your dreams go. Gavin James Bower evokes the escape exits from those post-industrial towns so well. Sadly for many they remain simply chemical'
'Thanks to the riots, you can't move for hapless explanations for disaffected teenagers. Bower knows what he's talking about. The dark young novelist is the writer pontificating politicians should have on the bedside table'
'Bloody, brutal and swift...like Brighton Rock with sexting'
'A subtle yet powerful insight into the type of youngsters society normally marginalises...there is an Orwellian anger about this book that makes it hard to put down' Huffington Post ~
Look at the Bunny
This uses the rabbit as totem as a trope through which to interrogate our relationship with technology. Pettman explores the Heideggerian being-toward-death of the pooka in Harvey (1950) and Donnie Darko (2001), the overwrought sexuality of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), and the spectral haunting of the rabbits in David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006). Like Frank the bunny in Donnie Darko, Pettman reads the rabbits both Of Mice and Men and Watership Down as guides: Looking at the bunny is looking into the future.
Skipping ahead, however, is not always a promising prospect. The Cassandra conundrum of seeing imminent catastrophe and having no one in the present believe you follows the prophet–rabbit or otherwise. The vagabond rabbits of Watership Down led by the frequently hysterical Fiver, Lennie, George, and Candy in Of Mice and Men led by a rabbit-ridden future vision, Donnie Darko led by his daylight hallucinations of Frank, and Elwood led by his imaginary Harvey are all held suspect by their peers. ”The list of lapine totems, no doubt, could go on and on–which is partly my point,” he writes (p. 63). Moreover, two more rabbit holes Pettman mentions early in the book include “the bunny plot” and “the Easter egg.” The former is a nagging idea that won’t leave you alone until you write it out of there, and the latter, of course, refers to the hidden treats of media: DVD menus, websites, etc. Pettman writes,
Indeed, the notion of the Easter egg can be employed to reflect on the nature or possibility of significant surprises in a claustrophically overcoded – thus predictable – world. A world seemingly bereft of alternatives. Perhaps we need to enact rituals designed to encourage the magic bunny to break the tedious cultural algorithms that restrict every day – in the West at least – to a smooth series of anticipated rhythms. (After all, a predictable consumer is a docile and productive citizen.) Perhaps we should be finding inspiration from the temporal tricks of this particular totem to get access not to the material Easter eggs of fetishized commodities, but the hidden, virtual gift of the “something else”: an unprecedented experience, a unimagined possibility, an unanticipated alliance, and so on (p. 63).
Make no mistake, this rabbit hole is deep.
A future seen eliminates the element of surprise. For the living being, it’s an ontological issue, one that Pettman explores from virtual rabbits to software, citing everyone from Eugene Thacker, McKenzie Wark, William Gibson, Marshall McLuhan, and N. Katherine Hayles, to Slavoj Žižek, Deleuze and Guattari, Vilém Flusser, and Giorgio Agamben. Make no mistake, this rabbit hole is deep.
Concluding, Pettman sums it up, writing,
The rabbit, Orc, penguin, avatar, angel, pixelated lover – even Paradise itself – all make appearances in the idiosyncratic virtual montage fashioned by this book. They are neototems for an era in which the monolithic notion of Nature is finally giving way to an understanding of ecology that includes computers as much as whales, and in which humans are just as likely to be sheep as shepherds (p. 164).
Far from the private life of the rabbit, its many public representations can show you the way. Totems can help us see the world with fresh eyes. So, next time you’re lost in the media matrix, wake up and follow the rabbit. ~ Roy Christopher, http://roychristopher.com/look-at-the-bunny
Against a backdrop of global climate disasters, financial panics, and inequality, localism — the creation of small-scale local systems of production and distribution — seems to make sense. Start small and stay close to home; forge community ties, grow your own food locally, and create alternatives that can eventually replace the current system of global capitalism with a sane, sustainable way of life. By providing this alternative, the local will overwhelm global capitalism. Death by a thousand cuts. But can the power of global capitalism be undone through establishing bike paths, cooperatives, bartering, alternative local currencies, community gardens, and small businesses?
Greg Sharzer’s well-researched book, with the unfortunate title No Local, argues no. Localism is incapable of displacing capitalism or even effectively challenging it because it fails to understand how capitalism works. “It sees the effect of unbridled competition, but not its cause.” By failing to understand how profit drives production, localism is blind to the pressures capitalism applies to its proposed remedies, which rely on the market or involve time and money that most working-class people don’t have. More utopian ideology than political framework, and too often served with a dose of moral superiority, localism never adequately explains by what magic small businesses or collectives can eclipse giant corporations.
Threads from localist authors, stretching back to Marx’s contemporary Pierre Proudhon and forward to modern authors like Barbara Kingsolver, Bill McKibben, Carlo Petrini, Michael Shuman, and E. F. Schumacher are scrutinized in constructive ways to highlight the profound gaps in their utopian remedies. No Local also shines a light on the often-neglected issue of class in the environmental movement.
The title is a nod to fellow Canadian Naomi Klein’s influential No Logo, published in 1999 and highly popular in the global justice movement. Despite the categorical title, Sharzer is not condemning the benefits of local action, but pointing out localism’s inadequacies and contradictions as a model of social change. Beyond Local might have better conveyed the book’s central message. Regardless, anyone who has encountered or explored the politics of localism must read this book. We are living through an unprecedented environmental crisis that requires a global solution of historic proportions. We must reexamine all of localism’s assumptions and place the environmental and social justice movements on a stronger theoretical foundation if we are to mount a serious, viable defense of the planet.
No Local begins with a brief history of capitalism and a cogent explanation of its inner workings, centered on Marx’s labor theory of value. Localism seeks a return to a preindustrial economic model that romanticizes small-scale production. But simplicity and smaller scale will not get rid of the social relations that underlay capitalism. Equal exchange and bartering don’t address the theft inherent even in small-scale capitalism, where workers are still paid less than the exchange value of the things they create, no matter the scale of production. Localists confuse use value and exchange value, forgetting that capitalism prioritizes profit (value) over human need (use value). By ignoring this question, localism leaves the question of exploitation unanswered and fails to root out the capitalist dynamic- accumulation for accumulation’s sake-that leads us to our current dilemma.
Sharzer insists that localism ends up apologizing for capitalism:
“For Marx, this is more than just false: it ‘is accepting the present state of affairs; it is, in short, making an apology… for a society without understanding it.’ Unfortunately, any apology for capitalism gets in the way of finding real solutions. . .. [E]conomists who accept the market always end up back where they began: at an ideal capitalism, with its ugly contradictions hidden behind visions of social harmony. This has a long history.”
Sharzer distinguishes between promarket and antimarket versions of localism. Promarket localism supports local businesses over their global competitors and urges lower rates of consumption. It accepts the market as a permanent feature of life and hopes that small-scale production will, over time, eradicate our current ills. These promarket assumptions are based on the interests of the middle class and small-business owners threatened by corporate competition.
The reality is that no hard line exists between the local and the global. While small may be beautiful for some business owners, it certainly isn’t for most employees, or even the environment.
Locally spent money doesn’t necessarily stay in a community. Business is reliant on tools and equipment made abroad. The cash register, computer, and industrial oven at your local bakery were probably not made down the road. Money might stay in the community for a cycle or two, but quickly moves on. Small-scale local production is usually less efficient and thereby less profitable, which is why small businesses pay only two-thirds of the wages of companies with more than five hundred employees, and often don’t offer health insurance. In addition, 83 percent of US small-business owners in a 2010 study were older, married, white men. One UK study cited by Sharzer concluded that small businesses are the least likely to “safeguard the environment.”
A pillar of promarket localism is the concept of ethical consumption. The idea is that if “consumers buy locally-sourced goods from ethical sellers”-for example, organic produce-”they’ll shrink the economy to a more rational, sustainable level.” A select group pays more for products, propping up businesses that the market would otherwise devour. This doesn’t challenge the market mechanism, nor does it address the question of the means to ethically produce adequate food for the billions who go hungry on the planet and cannot afford to pay more.
The antimarket localists focus on democratic, decentralized, prefigurative communities and methods of production. While anticapitalist, these small-scale experiments don’t realistically challenge capitalism. Antimarket localism’s greatest weakness is the assumption that everything society needs can be produced locally. It fails to address the complexities of modern production and distribution, romanticizing feudalism and precapitalist societies.
A planet with seven billion people and one billion Facebook accounts should never go back to bartering, surviving on grain and root vegetables all winter, or making our own clothes, except for our own individual amusement. Modern humans under capitalism have created an incredibly complex, specialized system of production and distribution. Rather than casting aside modern methods of production and distribution, they should be recast based on human priorities. That requires a difficult, head-on confrontation rather than the fantasy of communes gradually supplanting capitalism.
Both pro and antimarket localism seek to limit technology and transportation, which are seen as energy inefficient. But local food production might not reduce energy inputs. Growing and storing food in colder climates can often use more energy than needed for transportation. As Sharzer notes, 83 percent of food-related carbon emissions come from the production of food, while only 11 percent is due to transportation.
The political orientation of the localists is essentially that of the middle class-defined by Sharzer not only as shopkeepers and other owners of small businesses, but also professionals, “junior executives and office workers” whose mode of work encourages aggressive individualism. Because of their investment in the status quo, the progressive petite bourgeoisie avoids class conflict and longs for social peace. They are drawn to individual actions over collective responses. They look to consumption as the way to express social power rather than class location. They prioritize lifestyle choices, emphasizing morality and selfrestraint. Rather than aiming their fire at the corporations and the US military-industrial complex, they blame the individual consumer. We should stop shopping at Walmart and driving SUVs. Volunteer and strengthen your local community, buy organic food and a Prius. The end result is a narrow, cultural escape built inside the walls of capitalism.
The alternative is class struggle. Sharzer defends Marxism’s orientation on confronting crises, exploitation, and oppression through collective action as the key process by which people gain the knowledge to transform the world and themselves. Struggle can be local or global. Sharzer’s point is that such struggles must be confrontations- one class against another-that pose a challenge to the system rather than localism’s polite resistance, which is like a mosquito biting an elephant.
This review was first published in International Socialist Review.
~ Michael Ware, Climate and Capitalism
Neoliberal Undead, The:
Marc James Léger
Art criticism as institutional critique in this series of essays by Montreal-based artist and writer Marc James Léger. Largely produced between 2009 and 2011, Léger’s writings here have a strong focus on the Canadian art scene and its relationship with a broader culture and politics. Whilst some of the names and references may not be so well known outside of the context in which they operate, Léger’s forceful arguments around the oft-uneasy relationship between art and activism will chime for anyone tangentially involved in the Western world’s subjugated ‘culture industries’. ~ Tom Jeffreys, Editor The Journal of Wild Culture
Rhian E. Jones
[A] cogent, damningly articulate, and troubling investigation of the problematic interaction between music, media and politics... Jones’s real talent is for the expression of complex ideological interaction in a single, pithy sentence. ~ Sasha Garwood, Marylebone Journal, http://marylebonejournal.com/uploads/images/Magazine%20page/MJ%20Apr%2013.pdf
En Abime: Listening, Reading, Writing
Daniela Cascella's En Abîme both describes and enacts the dynamic between writing and sound that gets put into play whenever we write about the auditory or sound out the phonetic limits of writing. Her soi-disant "archival fiction" thematizes the writing of sound in scenes where phonographs serve as mnemonic triggers or are deployed as answers in an interview, but the archival sense of "records" also plays throughout. Moreover, in its investigation of the dynamic between writing and sound, Cascella's work makes a compelling argument for rethinking the metaphors by which we understand both reading and listening: moving from surface and depth to horizon and edge to entanglements and knots. Picking up on Herman Melville's description of his unsuccessful book Pierre as a "shallow nothing of a novel," Cascella patiently demonstrates that the depth-model of value ("shallow") and the ontology of "nothing" (as John Cage had proved for "silence") are far from certain and stable. Indeed, with its five blind-printed pages, her own second-hand copy of Melville's novel reanimates the metaphors of ghostly haunting and diminished echoing that echo and haunt her text in turn. A visual version of an echo, "en abîme" names the recursive relationships that animate the formal structure of the eponymous fiction, but the abyss is also a formation where echoes emanate — the space required for resonance, the cry of the voice de profundis. Like Robert Walser's poetry, Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus, and Gert Jonke's novels (such as Der Ferne Klang and Erwachen zum großen Schlafkrieg), En Abîme conducts philosophy by other — narrative and aural — means. Cascella is a phonographer of the mind, and her work repays the replay of repeated auditioning. ~ Craig Dworkin, Professor, University of Utah. Author, No Medium (MIT Press, 2013)
People v. Tony Blair, The
The People v Tony Blair is an interesting argument about how the power of protest is represented, and more often misrepresented, by the media . The book provides vital insights into how to construct present and future resistance to austerity and much else. ~ Mark Perryman, Philosophy Football reviews
Ringtone and the Drum, The
'One of the things I like most about Mark Weston’s book ‘The Ringtone and the Drum’ is the honesty of the emotional reactions to being a foreigner in a foreign – in every way – country. Mark has no delusions about what he’s doing there. He’s an observer. He tells people’s stories honestly, respectfully and without an agenda. And he’s open about his own reactions – the difficulty of it all, the time wasted, the physical discomfort, and the emotional strain. In fact, he’s pretty self-revelatory on that front, in a way that I found immensely sympathetic. And as always, talking to people, taking them seriously, and writing it down, gives you endlessly fascinating stories, and also offers a number of challenges to assumptions prevalent in the development business.’ ~ Claire Melamed, Overseas Development Institute
Ringtone and the Drum, The
'A travelogue that is incredibly sensitive to nuance and detail. As much about the impression of travel in West Africa as the nuts and bolts of day-to-day routine, the book is structured around short, essay-like chapters and the dates, even the year in which Weston and Ebru travel is never mentioned. This gives the book an almost timeless quality that might help it last as a treatise on globalisation in the developing world.The questions of deep faith raised by the unending poverty, coupled with the lack of trust people have for human systems, are dealt with artfully – becoming a central theme of the book. Whether it is Christian or animist, Weston’s attempt to surrender his Western mind to the magic and superstition of West Africa is a core theme throughout. By the book’s conclusion I began to understand why Weston referred to West Africa in such mystical terms at the outset. The care he has taken along the way leaves a well-crafted travel memoir that appreciates the complexity of countries that have received little mainstream traveller attention.' ~ African Arguments, Royal African Society
Dreams That Die
Well... I've just finished reading the best book on Hollywood I have read in a long time, and quite possibly the best I have read ever. John Wight's memoir of his experiences in Tinsel Town made me laugh out loud in places and cry in others, I don't exaggerate.
His role as an organizer in the US antiwar movement around 2002/03 brought back memories of my own. But it's his experiences as Ben Affleck's double, his time as an extra on sitcoms such as Friends, ER, the time he was escorted from the set of a movie for daring to wave at Al Pacino, his run-ins with bullying producers, agents, his struggle to maintain his dignity in a town of which Marlilyn Monroe once said will pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul which really grabbed me. Trust me, it'll grab you too.
I don't often recommend books, but I'm recommending this one.
Dreams That Die by John Wight.
Buy it and see for yourself ~ George Galloway MP, http://www.facebook.com/pages/George-Galloway-MP/8534485796?fref=ts
Brian Kim Stefans on Weird Realism
Let’s Get Weird: On Graham Harman’s H.P. Lovecraft
April 6th, 2013 reset - +
H.P. LOVECRAFT'S WORK has not received a great deal of attention from literary critics. Until relatively recently, the majority of “treatments” of his oeuvre have been in the form of B-movies. While it’s surprising that Roger Corman, director of seven features based on the stories of Lovecraft’s great predecessor, Poe, only did one Lovecraft film (The Haunted Palace, itself marketed as “Edgar Allan Poe’s The Haunted Palace,” despite being based on Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward), some of the stable of effects of Lovecraft’s fiction — his characters’ tendencies to simply tell you their emotions (usually on a scale between repulsion and disgust), their inability to adequately describe the most startling creatures and architectures — make his stories ripe for the B-movie treatment. The telegraphed emotions of his characters justify stilted or hysterical acting, and the incomplete, contradictory visual descriptions of creatures like Cthulhu or the Old Ones — not to mention the “strange, beetling, table-like constructions suggesting piles of multitudinous rectangular slabs or circular plates or five-pointed stars” hovering miles above us in the At the Mountains of Madness — seem to cry out for a gauzy camera style that conceals the tawdriness of the set design, the recycled monster costumes, and the failures of the lighting crew.
Each Lovecraft story seems at once an absurd improvisation — pulling stuff out of his hat for the sake of filling pulp magazine column inches — and a careful extension of his basic principle that humans, were we to have any access to the true nature of the universe, would recoil with horror at how small a role we play in it and how much the universe doesn’t seem to care. He often introduces an entire new species of ancient, if not thriving, life form while also confirming, often by quick allusion or repeated phrase, the persistent powers of some previously introduced creature or cultural item, notably the monster Cthulhu or the writings of the “mad Arab Abdul Alhazred” contained in the Necronomicon. His oeuvre, expressed in fragments (Lovecraft never wrote a novel) did spawn a large body of what has come to be called “fan fiction” — even within his own lifetime, writers such as Clark Ashton Smith and August Derleth devoted their careers to extensions of the Lovecraft universe — but little more than condescension from his intellectual contemporaries.
Lately this is beginning to change. The Library of America published a collection of Lovecraft’s best works in 2005, and today literary critics, and even philosophers, are finally beginning to pay attention to this defiantly unfashionable writer. In a way, this makes a certain kind of sense. Even if Lovecraft were not writing philosophy proper, much of the coherence of his “cosmicism” results not in the noncontradictory material or technological universes typical of most science fiction — think of the droids and lightsabers that populate the world of Star Wars — but in a singularly fraught metaphysical universe. In Lovecraft’s version of reality, laws seem to function in ways that make our foundational certainties — Euclidean geometry, the private experience of dreams, the inviolable divisions between human, animal, plant, and the nonliving, etc. — merely contingent: just the way things appear to us, rather than absolute necessities.
Perhaps the reason Lovecraft never wrote a novel is that he refused to be authoritative, a god in full control of a world, with total access to every drive and thought of its well-rounded characters. Novelists, with their pretenses to total access to their universes, invariably argue for the distinctiveness, not to mention the primacy, of human agency. Instead, Lovecraft wrote fragments of a novel, bits and pieces that never reveal the whole story but which, put together, poignantly suggest the impotence of human aspiration. If the short list of “failures” of Lovecraft as a writer drives away the average literary critic — who, like the novelist, will want to project some degree of panoptic vision — it’s proven fertile ground for the American “speculative realist” philosopher Graham Harman, whose new book on Lovecraft is not only an odd and exciting addition to his own rapidly expanding bibliography but also an affront to those critics who have mistaken Lovecraft’s virtues for faults.
Few movements in recent philosophy have had as startling a rise as that of the writers loosely grouped under the heading “Speculative Realists.” Attention to this movement, which includes Harman, Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant, Levi Bryant, and Quentin Meillassoux — sidestepping the controversy of whether it in fact is a “movement,” and, if it is, whether “speculative realism” accurately describes their program — is growing exponentially, not just in universities but also among the unaffiliated continental philosophy junkies who troll the blogosphere. The one principle that is inarguably shared by these philosophers is quite simple: they wish to retrieve philosophy from a tendency initiated, or at least made unavoidable, by the work of Immanuel Kant. Kant believed that the subject (meaning a human being) can ever know anything about the external world due to the very fact of subjectivity. For him, reality is always mediated by cognition, and the thinkable has a basic handicap: it is just thought. Nothing comes from outside into the mind, in other words, that is not turned into thought; the radical epistemologist argues that all we can know lies in the firm foundations of what is available to the senses, while the radical idealist argues that nothing remains in this thinking of whatever it was that spawned the thought, leaving one at the impasse of believing that all of reality is virtual, a bunch of mental actions. The result, according to the speculative realists, is that philosophy since Kant has been stuck with making this very mind→object relationship the locus and subject of philosophy, thus shutting down the project of metaphysics, the search for absolute laws beyond what can be established by experimental science.
Quentin Meillassoux has dubbed this mind→object relationship — the impasse that is at the heart of the Kantian tradition — “correlationism,” and the term has become a rallying cry for speculative realists. Harman’s philosophy displaces the mind→object relationship with that of object→object, the “mind” being just one object among many. Oddly, though Meillassoux names correlationism as the primary curse of the Kantian tradition, he also seems the most devoted of his peers to preserving the best part of it by making it the one place where he claims anything like an absolute exists. To Meillassoux (who, coincidentally or consequently, is also a fan of Lovecraft), the universe is not characterized by necessity (God-given or inevitable laws) but by a radical contingency, a “hyper-chaos” amidst which the only thing that could be seen as absolute is the mind→object relationship itself. How Meillassoux gets there is not our concern here; suffice it to say that the two philosophers share a fairly Lovecraftian attitude. They believe that there is a form of “realism” available to metaphysics, even when mucking in the world of what will always be unknown to human consciousness. This second Copernican revolution in philosophy, which situates the mind as one object in dizzying free-fall among many, might seem “the end of the world as we know it” for normative humanists, but the speculative realists, like Michael Stipe before them, “feel fine.”
Harman, for all of his concern with objects (his branch of speculative realism has been christened “object-oriented philosophy”), is not a materialist, and he’s certainly no empiricist. He believes that scientific pursuits that seek the elemental building blocks of the universe are getting most of the story wrong, for though we might be able to learn of the subatomic composition of, say, uranium, the banana or the West Nile virus, none of that knowledge exhausts the ways that an object can affect reality — which is to say, the way objects can relate to each other. An idiosyncratic feature of Harman’s philosophy is that “objects” for him are not just things, and certainly not just natural things, but also concepts, imagined entities, and nearly any entity that can have some effect on reality for however long or short a time, on however large or small a scale, and at whatever level of availability to human perception or “science.”
In Harman’s universe, then, not only are bananas objects, but so are aggregate things we create out of bananas (like banana splits), the component things that make up the banana (like the banana’s skin and its pulpy interior), imagined things we derive from bananas (like the Bananaman cartoon, or, I guess, Bananarama), as well as the corporations behind the cultivation, delivery, and marketing of bananas (like Chiquita Banana). This free-flow among a plethora of relations — from artificial to nature, from human to nonhuman, from “thing” to “idea,” with no possibility for hierarchy or a taxonomy — is a theme Harman picks up from “actor-network” theory, a creation of sociologist Bruno Latour, which posits the necessarily “hybrid” nature of a reality in which an arcane experiment in quantum physics could be affected by a sex scandal, an epidemic, Hurricane Sandy, political indifference, or a speed bump.
Harman worked as a sportswriter while pursuing his degree in philosophy, and any baseball fan knows that limiting your study of “reality” to the operations of physics misses nearly the whole story. Like a scientist, a fan might speculate on ball speed, the fitness of players, and even the level of oxygen available in Coors Field, but the play-by-play is incomplete without banter about the outrageous contracts, speculations about drug use, general kibitzing about the mythologies behind certain stadiums or franchises, the scandalous press relations of certain players, the classic games, the world records, and so on. We can discuss “baseball,” then, as an object composed of hundreds of other objects all in interrelation; to discuss the game merely on the level of physics — what empirical science would be able to tell us exists — would be absurd.
Harman is unusual in the metaphysical tradition in that he is comfortable with the fact that objects will never be fully revealed and that they in fact are always in a state of retreat, not simply from the mind (which is just another object) but also from each other. In Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy, Harman enlists Lovecraft in his battle with epistemology and materialism — Lovecraft himself expressed loathing for normative science, and certainly had no love for legitimate academics — but also against correlationism: the conviction that all the mind could ever know are purely mental phenomena, which ultimately led (and here we are brushing with broad strokes) to the so-called “linguistic” turn of much 20th-century philosophy (most characteristically that of Wittgenstein and Derrida). To that extent, Lovecraft’s failure to engage in the linguistic experimentation of his high Modernist contemporaries does not make him some kind of recalcitrant provincial, but rather a sensible voyager who simply did not want to make the claim that language was all there was. Lovecraft’s language “fails” only insofar as the narrators fail to get into words, to journalize, some experience that simply cannot be fully available to the meager human senses and mind. For the most part, Lovecraft is happy to use language as a simple, functional tool, rather than to insist at every moment through linguistic estrangement — like, say, a Stein or a Beckett — that language is not what you think it is (and, consequently, that language is everything). For Lovecraft, it's the universe, not language, that is not what you think it is. So what is it then? Well, weird.
Weird Realism opens with an idiosyncratic set of short essays that lay out the method of the book. Harman notes that there is a choice that philosophers generally make between being a “destroyer of gaps” — those who want to reduce reality to a simple principle — and “creators of gaps” — those who point to those areas to which we will possibly never have access. He deems the latter “productionists” (in contrast to reductionists) and writes: “If we apply this distinction to imaginative writers, then H.P. Lovecraft is clearly a productionist author. No other writer is so perplexed by the gap between objects and the power of language to describe them, or between objects and the qualities they possess.” He then describes the more literary aspects of his method. “The Problem with Paraphrase” takes aim at critic Edmund Wilson’s tendency to rewrite the “content” of Lovecraft’s stories in his own terms and then attack that effigy rather than the writing itself. “The Inherent Stupidity of All Content” develops Slavoj Žižek’s theme of the “inherent stupidity of all proverbs” (in The Abyss of Freedom, which Žižek amusingly proves that any proverb can be entirely reversed and give us access to an equally wise perspective). Harman combines both Wilson’s and Žižek’s techniques — ridiculously literal paraphrases in a variety of styles and attempted textual reversals — in a method of his own that he calls “ruination,” arguing that “after all, the fact that a statement can be ruined means that this has not already occurred. It also means that we can use possibly ruinations, and sometimes possible improvements, as a method of analyzing the effects of a literary statement.” This is, in some ways, a scientific method: Harman wishes to isolate qualities of Lovecraft’s writings by driving them out of their hiding places, like subjecting a bacterium to a stain, intense heat, or a college lecture by Newt Gingrich in order to elicit new behaviors.
The practice of “ruination” demonstrates the incredible precision with which Lovecraft approached description. If Harman is enlisting Lovecraft as a foot soldier against bland, realist empiricism, he has to prove that Lovecraft’s apparent failures to describe were a form of intellectual honesty rather than simply bad, clumsy style. Harman describes two stylistic techniques of Lovecraft’s that highlight this very theme of failure. The first is the “vertical” or “allusive” style, typified in this passage from the “Call of Cthulhu”:
If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing […] but it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful.
For Harman, such a passage draws us away from trying to recreate the creature in the terms of our loathsome, mundane world of Euclidean time and space. Lovecraft situates the creature partly in the diseased imagination of a narrator who claims that the description is “not unfaithful” but hardly correct, and also “asks us to ignore the surface properties of dragon and octopus […] and to focus instead on the fearsome ‘general outline of the whole.’” In this way, Lovecraft opens up a “gap”: things are moving along swimmingly in the story, with the narrator's sane and physical reality recognizably accessible and ordered; just at the moment when the narrator experiences something truly astounding — the color out of space, the shadow out of time, like in the title! — language breaks down, and all you are left with is the “general outline of the whole.”
The opposite method, which Harman calls “horizontal” or “cubist,” occurs when Lovecraft begins a description by claiming that he’s at an impasse, but then lets fly with an abundance of information, as in this passage from “The Dunwich Horror”:
It would be trite and not wholly accurate to say that no human pen could describe it, but one may properly say that it could not be vividly visualized by anyone whose ideas of aspect and contour are too closely bound up with the common life-forms of this planet and the known three dimensions. It was partly human, beyond a doubt, with very manlike hands and head, and the goatish, chinless face had the stamp of the Whateleys upon it. But the torso and lower parts of the body were teratologically fabulous […] Above the waist it was semi-anthropomorphic; though its chest […] had the leathery, reticulated hide of a crocodile or alligator. The back was piebald with yellow and black, and dimly suggested the squamous covering of certain snakes. Below the waist, though, it was the worse; for here all human resemblance left off and sheer phantasy began. The skin was thickly covered with coarse black fur, and from the abdomen a score of long greenish-grey tentacles with red sucking mouths protruded limply.
And that’s just the beginning. “The power of language is no longer enfeebled by an impossibly deep and distant reality,” Harman writes. “Instead, language is overloaded by a gluttonous excess of surfaces and aspects of the thing.” It’s like one of those scenes that seem to occur at the climax of any long-form Japanese fantasy anime: a creature starts to expand, but rather than simply getting fatter, every aspect begins to take on its own form, like a Rembrandt turning into an Arcimboldo. Both methods isolate moments of “crisis,” in the sense Thomas Kuhn describes in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: observations can be made but there is no place for them in the dominant scientific paradigm and hence no language, setting the stage for a “paradigm shift” that not only turns the apparent anomalies into “facts” but also drives a few scientists bonkers in the meantime. Maybe that’s why Lovecraft’s heroes are always getting nauseous when I, a Star Wars kid, would most expect them to be quite thrilled.
The bulk of Weird Realism is comprised of 100 mini-essays, many only a page long, each of which examines a short passage of one of Lovecraft’s major stories. Most expand outward to examine narrative tropes and stylistic tics that recur across several stories. Fans of Lovecraft will be satisfied: Harman seems to have missed nothing. Of the volume of writings by the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred called the Necronomicon, Harman outlines the many ways Lovecraft establishes its reality: by reminding us of the copies scattered in libraries across the world (notably a heavily-guarded copy in Harvard’s Widener library); by having the book appear in several lists with actual and fictitious books; by referring to several translations of the book; and finally — this goes beyond Lovecraft himself — by the fact of the book’s appearance in the stories of his circle of friends. (Curious to me is that Harman doesn’t address whether or not the Necronomicon actually exists, if not as a book then as a concept that has reality-effects. But perhaps that is a foregone conclusion for Harman.)
Harman’s take on a certain famous passage in which a sailor is “swallowed up by an angle of masonry which shouldn’t have been there; an angle which was acute, but behaved as if it were obtuse” gives a particularly good sense of how he is able to skirt between literary and philosophical language with ease:
Lovecraft introduces a problem. Not only is Cthulhu something over and above the three creatures he partially resembles […] we now find that even acute and obtuse angles must be something over and above their qualities. There seems to be a “spirit” of acute angles, a “general outline of the whole” which allows them to remain acute angles even in cases where they behave as if they were obtuse. Not since Pythagoras have geometrical entities been granted this sort of psychic potency, to the point that they have a deeper being over and above their measurable and experienceable traits.
While the lovers of literature might be less pleased when Harman makes grand statements about Lovecraft’s greater importance to literature than Proust or Joyce (he does!), those of us with no visceral knowledge of the nooks and crannies of the history of philosophy can find pleasure in learning that there is a tradition of attributing “psychic potency” to squares and circles. “[I]t is unclear how the mere fact of ‘behaving as obtuse’ would allow an angle to ‘swallow up’ an unwary sailor,” Harman continues:
Sketch the diagram of an obtuse angle for yourself, and you will see the difficulty in intuitively grasping what has happened. If the phrase “she looked daggers at him” is an example of catachresis in language, a misapplication of a word to gain metaphorical effects, then the acute angle obtusely swallowing a sailor is a fine example of catachresis in geometry. We might as well say: “It was the number 21, but it behaved as though it were the number 6.”
One way of reconciling this might be to consider the problem of painting. Any image that pretends to take place in “Renaissance perspective” is bound to have a “vanishing point” at which parallel lines will appear to converge. Consequently, in films — say an Expressionist one like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, or the finale to Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai, or Michel Gondry’s delirious music video for the Chemical Brothers’ “Let Forever Be” — we are repeatedly confronted with seemingly depthless triangles turning out to be boxes with hidden monsters or dancing girls in them, not to mention the reverse (poor Wile E. Coyote): landscapes with deep perspective turning out to be flat, painful façades.
But Harman’s approach is more interesting. Rather than treating the passage as a problem of ekphrasis (from my perspective it appeared acute, but it was really obtuse), he treats it as a statement about reality: the angle really is acute, but lo and behold, it has properties it simply hasn’t revealed to us yet! The knowledge that acute angles actually have four equal sides, or that an acute angle is really the discorporated spirit of Liberace, may be just around the corner.
There are some places where Weird Realism seems to fail, most notably when Harman makes evaluative claims about other writers; he doesn’t seem content to merely situate Lovecraft among the likes of Proust and Joyce, but suggests, if only briefly, that he surpasses them. He also doesn’t engage with any literary critical method later than that of Edmund Wilson and the New Critics. His apparent conviction, expressed largely through exclusion, that no features of other writers seem to produce the sorts of “gaps” that he finds so valuable in Lovecraft will no doubt be tested. I couldn’t help thinking of John Ashbery’s mid-career poetry, for example, or the novels of Alain Robbe-Grillet, both of which are filled with such mystifying gaps between object and description. The mini-essays seem to peter out at around 85 or so, especially during the last 11, where Harman seems content to note how the late story “The Shadow Out of Time” is just not as good as the earlier stuff; a little snip and tuck might have been in order. On occasion, it doesn’t quite seem like Harman is writing “philosophy” so much as noting a feature of the Lovecraft universe — which is to say, he slips into writing “literary criticism,” and might be just as happy citing Lovecraft’s linkages to Shelley and, say, later weird realist writers like Philip K. Dick or Samuel Delany as noting a feature of Hume or Kant.
But all of this points to what is one of the most salient aspects of Harman’s philosophical writing as a whole, which is that he sees his project as an ongoing conversation with his readers and with other philosophers. The title of his excellent book on Quentin Meillassoux, Philosophy in the Making, might just as well refer to his own work; philosophy, for Harman, isn’t just great minds articulating correct ideas, but philosophers building a structure together, testing it, revising it, and trusting that they will continue to disagree. So the porousness and apparent brokenness of these structural components of Weird Realism might just be my own misreading of the acute angle that chooses to act obtuse — as if a critic of literature could ever hope for things to be otherwise. ~ Brian Kim Stefans, L.A. Review of Books, April 6, 2013
En Abime: Listening, Reading, Writing
En Abîme: Listening, Reading, Writing: An Archival Fiction. By Daniela Cascella. Zero Books, 2012. $16.95. enabime.wordpress.com
Reviewed by Lola San Martín Arbide, University of Salamanca, Spain.
Throughout En Abîme: Listening, Reading, Writing: An Archival Fiction, the reader will find a repeated confession by the author, Daniela Cascella: “I lost all of my strength, I lost my ability.” This literary leitmotif is the true raison d’être of the text, to stick with the French in the title. En Abîme, a collection of Cascella’s criticism, resulted from an effort to put together a scattered body of work. As she has explained in interviews, the selected fragments have been extracted from a private notebook written concurrently with the press articles she published between 1998 and 2011. A type of counterpoint was created between these two parts, especially as the former are often more poetic, inventive, and personal than the latter. Books read in the past inform the way we listen, hear, and feel, and this creates a special kind of sound map, which in turn can develop into an intimate mental panorama. Cascella takes the reader for a walk through her inner landscape.
Embracing this concept of inscape, the author grants us access to her personal approach to writing sound. “Call me a writer of sound,” she writes. It is her inscape that sets the mood, the ethos for each piece. As if writing were the “other side of sound,” Cascella explores the ways that listening, reading, and writing are so closely imbricated. She explains this connection through her personal experience bringing together memories about the sound of novels by Herman Melville or traditional Alpine songs and linking them to actual places in Rome. Listening, sound, memories; these are concepts often considered too abstract to attempt to define normatively. However, Cascella’s book is an example of the concrete way that the three concepts are actually applied in the process of creative writing. She is an example of the listening art historian, to whom synesthesia, or “cohabitation of worlds” as she terms it, is the required medium towards any sort of artistic initiative.
The narration itself is a literal mise-en-abîme, employing repetition as one of its most distinctive stylistic characteristics. Extracts from quoted writers and musicians such as Pier Paolo Pasolini, Giovanna Marini, and Carlo Emilio Gadda, appear frequently in varied versions, creating a feeling of closeness to the author and to the story being told. All of these fragmentary elements, which appear scattered at the beginning, are emotively tied up in the end. The quoted artists are the elements of the subjectively crafted landscape in which Cascella’s literary criticism texts are rooted. These memories and personal stories exemplify the ways in which the cultural wealth accompanying our lives is an ever-changing corpus of potentially artistic materials. Despite the number of visual elements present throughout the text, there is not a single reproduction of them. This enhances a deeper sense of “archival fiction” and sets an ambiance where abstract reflection takes over from the precise and descriptive analysis typical of traditional research.
Most libraries will classify this book under the general title of “literary criticism” as it does not quite fit into the standard tag of “music” or even that of “sound studies.” Elegantly leaving aside the style of academic writing, which tends to favor linear discourse, these fragments of a self-ethnography are of great interest when analyzed in terms of bilingualism. Writing in a foreign language for the sake of the sound of it – its natural melody, intonation, and pronunciation – must have been a beautiful and pleasurable challenge for the author. The book is set in a middle ground between a vernacular style and that of an adopted tongue, which calls for a renewed musical attitude from the native English-speaking reader. Cascella defines sound art as the “non-canonized way of shaping listening,” whereas En Abîme might well be described as a non-canonized subgenre of autobiography. It is a journey into Cascella’s ability to explain her artistic sensibility and part of her professional life in terms of past experiences, re-visited places, and artworks.
Drawing on examples such as John Cage’s dissemination of Thoreau’s diaries until his words were nothing but abstract sounds, Cascella shows how sonic experiences become a shivering body, a rhythm that finds parallels in literary, filmic, or visual experiences. The book calls for a highly synesthetic sensibility from the art critic and writer. This approach can be of equal value to the ethnographer as well as to any kind of researcher. In general terms, Cascella is defending a broad approach to humanities, a holistic consideration of any art piece. The mise-en-abîme comes in when the reader is confronted with the assertion that a critique of an art piece is also subject to yet another critique, which in turn is subject to another in an endless repetition of critique. By making public our opinions and thoughts on what other people created, we are equally exposing our own creativity and its background. Cascella’s work seems to suggest that the best attitude a researcher can embrace is to acknowledge subjectivity, as long as clarity and honesty about its sources prevail. Quoting Jean Luc Godard, what matters “is not where you take things from, it’s where you take them to.” ~ Lola San Martín Arbide, Ethnomusicology Review
Can The Market Speak?
In conclusion, Campbell Jones work raises a number of pertinent questions in regard to concepts such as hegemony, reification and the balance of forces between labour and capital. His book might not have all the answers to those questions but it can allow the kind of discussions which might arrive at them. Having had our tongues cut out by property developers and the priests of high finance, we will need books like Can the Market Speak? that believe in zombies’ ability to speak. ~ The Berlin Review of Books, http://berlinbooks.org/brb/2013/04/can-the-market-speak/
Ringtone and the Drum, The
'The Ringtone and the Drum is a description of the people of West Africa, their daily struggles, hardships and hopes. The book tells the story of the poor in these countries, hawkers, coffee-sellers, market-stall owners trying to survive by working in the largest employment sector in the region, the informal economy. The lives of the people Weston meets are told with sensitivity and compassion. He shows that the poor of the region are like us, deserving of the same interrogation and expressing the same hopes…The Ringtone and the Drum helps us to understand West Africa, with a deeply humane rage against poverty in a region – and world – of abundant wealth.' ~ Leo Zeilig, Socialist Review
The central thesis of the book, that this hauntological futurity is applicable to a study of Italian Futurism, remains an interesting topic, and my only criticism would be that I would have preferred a longer study which pays greater attention to Futurist works of art themselves, as well as the famous manifestos. The care and attention paid to the construction and qualification of the arguments in Nuclear Futurism is both admirable but also the reason why you wouldn’t exactly pick this book up unless you had a specific interest in doing so. It is most definitely ‘difficult theory’, not because it is particularly difficult per se, or lacking in clarity, rather, the arguments are so dense and well qualified that any clumsy turns of thought are banished, and what remains is 120 pages of taut and challenging philosophical investigation. The book doesn’t let up until the endnotes, so anyone spying its slim spine and considering a quick theory fix should be warned off - this is hardcore. ~ Callam Green, Review31: http://review31.co.uk/article/view/118/apocalypse-tomorrow
Rhian E. Jones
Amongst other things, Clampdown is a demand for more intersectional thinking, a larger dose of feminist analysis in mainstream leftist thinking, and a stronger recognition of class in feminist discussions... tremendously fun, combining the long, epithet-laded sentences of music journalism with the outrage and epithets of political polemic, and intercutting both with the language of social analysis... It has the same effect on me as reading Barbara Ehrenreich: I just want to get the pints in and demand “So what happened *then*?” ~ Jem Bloomfield, https://quiteirregular.wordpress.com/2013/03/31/clampdown-pop-cultural-wars-on-class-and-gender-by-rhian-e-jones/
Dreams That Die
John Wight's account of his time in the US film industry is a graphic insight into Hollywood realities
John Wight is a fine exponent of the scatological school of writing and references to excrement abound in this account of his years trying to make it as a screen writer in the ruthless and unforgiving world of Hollywood.
For Wight, shit is not merely a statement of disgust, it's the great leveller in the film studio caste system and a political act in itself. ~ Paul Simon, Morning Star: http://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/news/content/view/full/131011
En Abime: Listening, Reading, Writing
En Abîme is one of those books that can be read in one sitting, letting yourself be caught up in the thick web of references and paths, and by the rhythm of the text itself. It is developed as an open structure, through a way of writing which is free from chronological orders and fixed divisions between real and fictional. It finds nourishment in recurring digressions and shifts in physical and literary spaces, in listening and reading, building and intertextual net through absolutely personal threads.
http://www.digicult.it/news/en-abime-a-journey-across-listening-reading-and-writing-with-daniela-cascella/ ~ Elena Biserna , Digicult