Sunday, March 28, 2010

So it Begins

It figures that the last post, primarily about needing to be a more patient reader, would begin and end with notes about blogging frequency. Inevitable around here, I suppose. Anyway, there were other factors leading into the decision to finally just read those things I've wanted to, or felt the need to, read and to be patient about it. Regarding poetry, Jonathan Mayhew recently posted a brief entry about his ongoing engagement with canonical high modernist poetry:

Now the problem is that in the contemporary university, cultural studies has largely displaced that canon, especially in Latin American studies--but also to some degree in the peninsular (Iberian peninsular, that is) realm. The typical argument in Latin American studies would have a very clear political "take away." I heard a colleague of mine at a candidate's job talk the other day suggest that any emphasis on literature as an aesthetic phenomenon would automatically alienate students, have them view literature as something alien to their own lives--as though their own lives had no aesthetic component at all.

So yes, I work on the boring old canonical stuff, leaving me holding the conservative end of the stick. I believe, though, that reading this stuff--really difficult modernist poetry--makes you frightfully intelligent. It really just uses all of your brain at the highest level of literacy imaginable. To really get this kind of poetry, you have to have a highly developed cultural, musical, visual, verbal, problem-solving, connection-making intelligence. But the only way to get that is to read it. In other words, nobody has it before approaching this kind of poetry.

I quote the first paragraph because I want to note the assumption some people have that the lives of certain others apparently have little to no "aesthetic component". But it is the second paragraph that is relevant here, for various reasons, both negative and positive. I believe Mayhew's observation to be essentially true. This belief has unfortunately had the effect of leading me to the further self-defeating belief that it has always already been too late for me to read difficult poetry with any degree of competence. I have blogged numerous times about this kind of thing, and probably will again; it remains something that bothers me, not just on a personal level. On the other hand, why not simply read poetry? Why worry so much? The same goes, more or less, with philosophy—endless deferrals, endless fretting, and so on. But still, why not just get on with it?

So, ok, on with it then. Instead of trying to squeeze in a page or three of some novel before drifting off to sleep at night, I have been reading poetry at bedside—I tried some Rimbaud, with some success, more Stevens, Dickinson, Kay Ryan. (I've found I really like Kay Ryan's poetry. Another contemporary poet I have in mind to try is Geoffrey Hill, who I expect to be a thornier read. I may have more to say about how these two poets have come to my attention and why I am drawn to them as possibilities.) (By the way, this does not mean that I'm abandoning novels. Far from it. But I've read a lot of them, after all, and so don't feel the need to read as many just now, or to keep up with it for the moment. Even so, as of this writing, I am about 200 pages into Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children. Parts of it I love; others are actually rather annoying—frankly, just about any scene involving the titular father with his children is a serious chore to read.) As far as philosophy is concerned, I've written about my goals to read Plato and Aristotle, and I've written about Nietzsche, but possibly the philosopher I've mentioned most often here, again usually in a spirit of deferral, has been Heidegger. Perhaps one day I'll write something about why I'm drawn to Heidegger, but in any event, the actual reading has been rough-going, even as his philosophy remains somehow attractive. So I ordered History of the Concept of Time, recommended by Graham Harman as a good place to start with Heidegger, if Being and Time itself seems too opaque, as it has for me (and, indeed, leafing through it briefly upon delivery, the former does strike me as a more readable volume; for the record, I also ordered Harman's own Heidegger Explained). But I haven't dived into that just yet, because the real day-to-day project I've begun is Capital.

Capital, because of its hugeness and its incompleteness and the sheer massiveness of the commentary and other writing that draws from it and has been influenced by it, has, of course, loomed as a central text, but yet again always deferred. I've read several books that take Marxian approaches to capitalism, by David Harvey and by Ellen Meiksins Wood and by the Midnight Notes Collective, among others, some of which I have written about here; these books have been enormously helpful to me. But I have always known that in order to come to terms with Marx's own analysis, I needed to really be deliberate with the text itself, which, of course, requires time and patience. But it was a book I read earlier this year that really brought home to me my need to read Capital sooner rather than later and which reinforced the patience theme I've been talking about. I'm referring to Maria Mies' Patriarchy & Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labour, which I have excerpted from and referred to a couple of times previously on the blog (it's also true that there are many discussions that seem to me to be lacking precisely because they don't sufficiently focus on the economic, but no doubt I can make that argument more directly if I myself am more familiar with the Marx in Capital, versus his other writing, or the legacy of cultural Marxism, which seems to have displaced his economic analysis in perceived importance to way too many). I think that Mies' book is an important book, so important that I decided I wanted to devote several blog posts to it. But when I sat down one evening to begin taking chapter-by-chapter notes I was confronted with my dual-problem. First, I had read the book too quickly. I had been so excited by it that I fairly tore through the text. I marked my copy in numerous places, of course, but I didn't take notes as I was reading. This has been a basic problem for me for years. I've never been a good note-taker, but it's even worse now, as my reading is largely done on my commuter train, where writing notes is physically difficult. And, on the patience theme, I've so protected this reading time and have had so many different books on my list, that I've simply read, over-relying on my memory and copious underlining to get me by and to retain what ought to be retained. My memory may be good, but it's not that good. And as I've explored with respect to writing, if you don't write an idea down, take note of it, odds are it will disappear. I discovered when I attempted to summarize the chapters in Mies' book that I would effectively have to read the book again in order to do so. (The same thing happened with a great David Graeber essay I have had in mind to use for another post I'm working on; I'll have to read it again too.) Since Patriarchy & Accumulation on a World Scale is a feminist text, and as such is in part a feminist critique of Marx and Marxist analyses, I realized that the time had come to stop deferring and to just read Capital.

Here, then, is my plan: as I've been meaning to since first learning about it, I'm going to follow along with David Harvey's lecture series on Capital. So, I downloaded the first several lectures, and I began to read. I plan to read the chapter(s) under discussion, freely writing notes in the text itself, following up each chapter with some additional notes, then viewing the relevant lecture (these last two steps may be reversed as needed), not at all worrying if I have to re-read sections or re-view portions of lectures. I think it's gone fairly well so far. I'm through chapter 6, which means I've made it through the difficult first three chapters, the third being the one, Harvey says, where people often given up when they're going it alone. I was gratified to find I was able to read it without too much pain. (It may help, in this regard, that I read Harvey's Limits to Capital last year.) I'm not expecting to completely get Capital in this reading, or come through feeling like I've satisfied my need to understand capitalism or anything like that. I expect it to be a text I return to in the future as certain problems present themselves. In any event, Marx's own analysis aside, I'm interested in the ways in which we as readers are encouraged to treat everything as in flux, including understanding. In that way, also remembering Marshall Berman's argument that Capital is very much a modernist text, it is not unlike poetry and philosophy.


J.R. Boyd said...

It's funny: You put it off, and then it's not that bad! Honestly, I find Limits, and others, harder to read most of the time.

Anyway, I'm pretty much in the same place -- both in the text and in what I think is my degree of comprehension. It will be good to bounce ideas off TEM.

Here's betting Capital will be even better than Lord of the Rings!

Richard said...

Very true, J. R. Though there's a lot to retain, the reading itself is not so bad. And I agree that Limits to Capital was a tougher read.

I look forward to seeing what you make of your reading. Bouncing ideas off each other would be fun and fruitful, I think.