Friday, December 30, 2011

Books Read - 2011

As is the annual tradition, here is the final list of books I completed reading in 2011, in chronological order of completion; links are to posts in which I've either written about the book or the author, or posted excerpts; following the list are comments and observations, including remarks on my favorite books of the year, plus the always all-important statistical breakdown.

1. A Language Older Than Words, Derrick Jensen
2. World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction, Immanuel Wallerstein
3. The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, Marilynne Robinson
4. Absence of Mind, Marilynne Robinson
5. Prose, Thomas Bernhard (Martin Chalmers, trans.)
6. My Prizes: An Accounting, Thomas Bernhard (Carol Brown Janeway, trans.)
7. Wittgenstein's Nephew, Thomas Bernhard (David McLintock, trans.)
8. Concrete, Thomas Bernhard (David McLintock, trans.) (re-read)
9. Woodcutters, Thomas Bernhard (David McLintock, trans.)
10. The Emigrants, W.G. Sebald (Michael Hulse, trans.)
11. Yes, Thomas Bernhard (Ewald Osers, trans.)
12. In Defense of Childhood: Protecting Kids' Inner Wildness, Chris Mercogliano
13. The Man Who Loved Children, Christina Stead
14. Citizens to Lords: A Social History of Western Political Thought From Antiquity to the Middle Ages, Ellen Meiksins Wood
15. Sex & War, Stan Goff
16. A Child's Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play, Vivian Gussin Paley
17. The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois
18. Spurious, Lars Iyer
19. Not For Sale: Feminists Resisting Prostitution and Pornography, Rebecca Wisnant & Christine Stark, eds. (excerpt from Andrea Dworkin; from D.A. Clarke)
20. Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag
21. Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv
22. The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, Peter Linebaugh & Marcus Rediker
23. Death Sentence, Maurice Blanchot (Lydia Davis, trans.) (re-read)
24. Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace, Sara Ruddick
25. The Kindly Ones, Jonathan Littell (Charlotte Mandell, trans.) 
26. The Last Novel, David Markson
27. The Tyranny of Science, Paul Feyerabend
28. Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, Silvia Federici (re-read) (also, also, also)
29. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, Susan Bordo
30. The Words and the Land: Israeli Intellectuals and the Nationalist Myth, Shlomo Sand (Ames Hodges, trans.)
31. The Man of Reason: "Male" & "Female" in Western Philosophy, Genevieve Lloyd
32. Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, Adrienne Rich
33. Thou Shalt Not Be Aware: Society's Betrayal of the Child, Alice Miller (Hildegarde and Hunter Hannum, trans.)
34. Ubik, Philip K. Dick
35. The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick
36. The Female Man, Joanna Russ
37. The Lottery, Shirley Jackson
38. Tell Me A Riddle, Tillie Olsen
39. The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson
40. We Have Always Lived In The Castle, Shirley Jackson
41. Homefront: A Military City and the American 20th Century, Catherine Lutz
42. Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development, Vandana Shiva
43. The Flight to Objectivity: Essays on Cartesianism & Culture, Susan Bordo
44. The Village and the World: My Life, Our Times, Maria Mies (Madeline Ferretti-Theilig, trans.)
45. The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All, Peter Linebaugh
46. The Vegetarian Myth: food, justice, and sustainability, Lierre Keith
47. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley
48. Reflections on Gender and Science, Evelyn Fox Keller
49. The Science Question in Feminism, Sandra Harding
50. The Work of Love: Unpaid Housework, Poverty and Sexual Violence at the Dawn of the 21st Century, Giovanna Franca Dalla Costa (Enda Brophy, trans.)
51. The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class, David R. Roediger
52. Darkwater: Voices From Within the Veil, W.E.B. Du Bois
53. Talking Back: thinking feminist, thinking black, bell hooks (re-read)
54. Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, bell hooks
55. Herland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman
56. The Modern World-System I: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century, Immanuel Wallerstein
57. We Who Are About To..., Joanna Russ
58. The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin
59. The Modern World-System II: Mercantilism and the Consolidation of the European World-Economy, 1600-1750, Immanuel Wallerstein
60. The Eye, Vladimir Nabokov (Dmitri & Vladimir Nabokov, trans.)
61. Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward An Autobiography of A Race Concept, W.E.B. Du Bois
62. Debt: The First 5,000 Years, David Graeber
63. The Boy Who Would Be A Helicopter: The Uses of Storytelling in the Classroom, Vivian Gussin Paley

Some statistics
Number of books written by men: 30
Number of books written by women: 33
Number of books which were acquired via the Big Dalkey Get: 0
Number of other Dalkey books: 0
Number of books in translation: 14
Number of books by writers known primarily to me through their blogs: 2 (Lars Iyer, Stan Goff)
Number of books that were borrowed from the library: 12
Number of books read on the Kindle: 5

Fiction or Poetry (or sufficiently literary memoir):
Number of books: 24
Number that are poetry: 0
Number that are memoirs:1 (I'm arbitrarily counting Bernhard's My Prizes here)
Number that are re-reads: 1
Number of authors represented: 15
Number of books by female authors: 10
Number of female authors: 7
Number of books by American authors: 11
Number of American authors:
Number of books by African-American authors: 0
Number of African-American authors: 0
Number of books by non-American, English-language authors: 3
Number of non-American, English-language authors: 3 (Stead, Iyer, Shelley)
Number of books in translation:10
Number of authors of books in translation: 5
Number of translated books by female authors: 0
Number of foreign languages represented in translation: 3 (German, French, Russian)
Most represented foreign language: German (7: 6 Bernhard (plus a 6th non-fiction-ish Bernhard), 1 Sebald)
Number of Nobel Prize-winners: 0
Number that could be categorized as science fiction: 6
Number of science fiction books written by women: 4

Number of books from before 1800: 0
Number of books from 1800 to 1899: 1
Number of books from 1900 to 1914: 0
Number of books from 1915-1944: 3 (Gilman, Nabokov, Stead)
Number of books from 1945 to 1970: 8 (all 3 Sh. Jackson, both PKD, Olsen, Blanchot, one Bernhard)
Number of books from 1971-1989: 7 (Le Guin, both Joann Russ novels, 4 Bernhard)
Number of books from 1990 to 1999: 1 (Sebald)
Number of books from 2000 to 2010: 3 (Markson, Littell, Bernhard's My Prizes)
Number of books from 2011: 1 (Iyer)

Number of non-fiction books: 39
Number of books by female authors: 23
Number of books in translation: 4
Number that are biographies or letters or memoirs: 3
Number that are philosophy or about philosophy: 7
Number that are books of criticism or essays: 2
Number that are about politics or economics or history: 13
Number about pop music: 0
Number about science: 3
Number about feminism: 14
Number about parenting or education: 5
Number that are anthropology: 2

Comments & Observations:
This turned out to be a good reading year, all things considered, though you wouldn't know it from reading this blog. The skimpy number of links to posts in the list above is but one measure of the blog's extreme slowdown. Still, the reading itself was fruitful. 

Overall, I completed quite a few more books this year than last, though not coming anywhere close to previous years. The numbers were heavily skewed towards various kinds of non-fiction. In addition, not only did I succeed in finally reading more women writers, but in fact for the first time I read more books written by women than by men. Weirdly, my sense was of the women heavily out-numbering the men, but it was really only by 3 books. No doubt this is an indicator in itself of male privilege. (How does the story go? When women number as little as 25% of any group, men tend to report that it was "dominated" by women? I could look that up, but you get the idea.)

I began the year finishing up Derrick Jensen's inimitable Language Older Than Words, which I actually did succeed in writing about. Soon I was reading Marilynne Robinson's two related collections of essays. I'd meant to write about those (they're worth writing about; I may yet write something drawing on them after all) but never got around to it. They're the closest things I read this year to literary criticism; I'm not convinced that's what they are. Then came the several Bernhard books, including a re-read of the excellent Concrete, which long ago was the first Bernhard novel I ever read. I also loved Woodcutters and Wittgenstein's Nephew, both of which I rate very highly, if perhaps just under the brilliant trio of Concrete, The Loser, and Old Masters (Extinction remains as yet un-read). I did not much care for Yes. Looking at it in context, it seems to point away from the heavier early novels and towards the lighter later ones that I prefer. But it felt off, and awkward, all the way through. Mixed in among these was Sebald's The Emigrants, which is probably my favorite of his novels. I finally waded my way through to the end of The Man Who Loved Children; the novel's many stretches of beauty may not have made up for the title character, who is perhaps the most unreadably annoying and obnoxious major character in literary history. Part of me wants to never again pick up another Christina Stead novel, going against my informal rule to give authors more than one shot; another part of me figures, well, at least that fucker won't be in the rest of them. (Right?) Besides, I already have Letty: Her Luck sitting there waiting for me. Gah. I spent a goodly amount of time with Jonathan Littell's remarkable novel, The Kindly Ones. It was on my mind for weeks, and I can still recall several scenes vividly. And yet, it shocked me a little to see it there on the list. I read that this year? Seems ages ago. Spurious was the only novel originally published in 2011 that I completed, but at least it was a good one.

For most of the year, I frankly had a hard time reading fiction. The characters and plots felt like impositions. So, the rest of the year was fairly dominated by non-fiction, except for a stretch during our summer trip, when I read my first two Philip K. Dick novels (I liked them just fine, especially Ubik), three Shirley Jackson books (all of which I thoroughly enjoyed, especially the novel We Have Always Lived In The Castle), the Tillie Olsen collection (the first story of which is devastatingly moving; the rest of which didn't work for me at all; I could barely make my way through them), and Joanna Russ' The Female Man. Later on I read Russ' We Who Are About To... I tend to forget she was a student of Nabokov's. One wonders what he would have thought of her fiction. In any event, I appreciated them and, as I've noted previously, I expect Russ to figure in this blog's future. Finally, I should mention The Dispossessed, my first Ursula Le Guin novel, and likely not my last.

I read no poetry this year, other than stray attempts at some Geoffrey Hill, and a few poems from Kay Ryan's Best Of It collection.

Brief interlude to include a list of books I read substantial portions of without yet completing by the year's end:

James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed
Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down
E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class
Leopoldina Fortunati, The Arcane of Reproduction
bell hooks, Feminist Theory: from margin to center
Kolya Abramsky, ed. Sparking a Worldwide Energy Revolution
Rosalind Belben, Is Beauty Good
Mathias Énard, Zone
Octavia Butler, Parable of the Talents
Alice Munro, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage

Early in the year, I got the brilliant idea that I'd get a Kindle and use it to read pdfs, including pdfs of various books I'd come across (this was around the time of the February events in Egypt, when I really wanted to read Rule of Experts by Timothy Mitchell, and had acquired an e-copy of it; I still want to read it, but not on the Kindle). Well so, I got a secondhand-ish Kindle, and set about converting pdfs and. . . it didn't really work out. It's annoying; all too often, the books get all mangled in the conversion process. I did, however, discover that Amazon has all these free public domain books, so I downloaded several. Which is how I finally read, after all these years, W.E.B. DuBois' masterpiece, The Souls of Black Folk. Later in the year, I read his second sort of memoir, Darkwater, also on the Kindle, then Dusk of Dawn, not on the Kindle. I expect to be reading more DuBois, especially his monumental study, Black Reconstruction. The Kindle experience is not one I relish. It's nice having easy access to several books at once, but frankly I don't enjoy the interface. No doubt more recent iterations, or something like the iPad, would change my opinion of e-reading somewhat, but on balance if I'm going to use the Kindle, I do not want the book to be long. (God, the last thing I'd want to do is read Proust on it. Ugh.)

In my brief Kindle-pdf experiment, I did read one full book, Stan Goff's Sex & War. Goff's book is a personal exploration of the links between militarism, misogyny, and sex from a feminist perspective. This led directly to the multi-author Not for Sale collection and really initiated one of the two great non-fiction threads of the year: feminism. I've already written about the Ruddick and Russ books and their role in this, as well as my re-read of Silvia Federici's Caliban and the Witch. I read a lot about feminism and science (cf. Evelyn Fox Keller, Sandra Harding) and feminism and philosophy (Susan Bordo). Federici led me to Dalla Costa, and also recommended Maria Mies' memoir (which, alas, I didn't think was very good, as a book, though she says many interesting and important things in it). My prior knowledge of Mies' classic Patriarchy & Accumulation on a World Scale had led me to Vandana Shiva's work. All very helpful, fascinating, important. Ruddick's Maternal Thinking and Adrienne Rich's Of Woman Born are, as noted, bibliographical goldmines.

In the midst of all this, I attended an excellent panel discussion on race, here in Baltimore, held at 2640. David Roediger was scheduled to be there, but was a no-show (some travel complication), but his famous study of the white working class, The Wages of Whiteness, was available for sale there. I snapped it up and read it immediately. A great book, to be sure, which saddened me deeply, but which also reminded me of my longstanding interest in the American history of race, which had been my focus in college and for the first few years after college (and which is why it was so weird I'd never read DuBois). It further brought to mind that the first feminist I'd ever read was, in fact, bell hooks. So I re-read the hooks I had (Talking Back), realized that I'd long since internalized her basic critiques of liberal white feminism, wondered if this wasn't why I'd not spent any time pursuing feminism as an area of study until very recently, even as events in my personal life helped radicalize my own feminism (though not necessarily in ways that would be familiar to the so-called (white) "radical feminists"). Then I took hooks' first book, Ain't I a Woman, out of the library, and in short order consumed it. And it, too, is a bibliographical goldmine. So now, in the coming year, I have a huge, interesting list of women writers to read, which crucially includes many women of color.

The other great non-fiction reading thread, which of course I see as related, was furthering my reading in the history and workings of capitalism. Last year's big deal was volume one of Capital itself. This year meant world-system analysis and anthropology, along with Marxist histories from the likes of Peter Linebaugh, as well as Federici's book, and the Italian Wages for Housework feminists she was originally linked with. The Long Twentieth Century, by the late Giovanni Arrighi, had been my only previous encounter with world-system analysis, but I'd found that book so fascinating, and so surprising and yet persuasive, in particular how it flew in the face of Marxist accounts of the origins of capitalism, that I wanted to know more. I came across Immanuel Wallerstein's brief introduction to world-system analysis, which is a delightful sort of historical overview of both the world-system itself, and the analysis. Late in the year, I saw Wallerstein speak (also at 2640). I picked up and read the first two volumes of his monumental study, The Modern World-System. I'll have more to say about these works in separate blog posts (really!), but suffice it to say that many things make a lot more sense to this reader after reading these books than they did before. Then, just before the end of the year, I read David Graeber's utterly engrossing book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, and more and more things started to fall together. I see Debt as a perfect complement to the books by Wallerstein, Arrighi, Mies, Federici, Linebaugh & Rediker, etc. But again, separate blog posts are in order to explore the book itself and its relation to those others.

Before closing, I'd like to say a brief word about the small clutch of books about children and parenting and education. Many such books touch on a lot of important things, but seem of limited value insofar as the authors do not seem aware of the implications (political and cultural) of the problems they raise, and the types of solutions they seem to favor. Chris Mercogliano's In Defense of Childhood and Richard Louv's Last Child in the Woods fit in this category. Vivian Gussin Paley's books manage to escape this problem by being more focused on day-to-day practical matters involving the play of young children in schools. I've written a little bit about her work before, but I'd like to emphasize how inspiring I find her work. Again, though, the political implications of what she writes about are incredibly vast (and part of me would love to know what Josipovici would make of it!). I hope to revisit her work in future blog posts as well. Finally, Alice Miller's book, Thou Shalt Not Be Aware is utterly fascinating and a necessary corrective to Freudian nonsense about sex drives and Oedipal complexes. Incidentally, Miller was not a feminist herself, but in the afterward to the edition of the book I have, she did highlight the work of feminists in bringing to light various poisonous parenting practices.

Ok, that wraps up another year of reading. Thank you.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


The other day, Adam Kotsko posted an entry titled "Religious but not spiritual", in which he first quoted from Adorno's Minima Moralia:
Behind the pseudo-democratic dismantling of ceremony, of old-fashioned courtesy, of the useless conversation suspected, not even unjustly, of being idle gossip, behind the seeming clarification and transparency of human relations that no longer admit anything undefined, naked brutality is ushered in. The direct statement without divagations, hestitations or reflections, that gives the other the facts full in the face, already has the form and timbre of the command issued under Fascism by the dumb to the silent. Matter-of-factness between people, doing away with all ideological ornamentation between them, has already itself become an ideology for treating people as things.
...and then wrote this:
Once the empty gestures of courtesy are swept away, we aren’t inducted into a new realm of sincere, unmediated human brotherhood — rather, we are left with nothing but the brutality of market relations. Similarly, once we get rid of “religion,” we’re left with nothing but prideful (and empty) speculations and a demand for the warm fuzzies we associate with spiritual ecstacy.
My main focus is not on the spirituality element, though, but on the element of ritual. I have found that the “empty gestures” of life, the little rituals — touching glasses before drinking, going through the meaningless exchange of “hi” and “how are you,” etc. — have felt more and more important and necessary.
The day before I read this post, I'd happened to be leafing through my copy of Chris Knight's Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture, looking for references to the ways in which the work of feminists had informed his (brilliant) study, when I came across his discussion of Lévi-Strauss, who had claimed that mythology "has no obvious practical function", and virtually ignored ritual altogether (at least in the works under review here), much to the dismay of specialists and other anthropologists, on both counts. Anyway, in light of the Adorno passage, and Kotsko's remarks, I'd like to share what Knight says in this context (Mary Douglas citations are to her book, In the Active Voice):
It is difficult for non-anthropologists to appreciate the significance of ritual in non-western cultures, because, as Mary Douglas (1982: 34) has written, the belittlement of ritual is central to our European tradition. To us ritual means, as she writes, 'the formal aspect of religion. "Mere ritual", one can say, and "empty ritual", and from there to mumbo jumbo and abracadabra'. Ritual is merely external; Europeans give priority to the internal, 'spiritual' aspects of religion. Ritual is mere form; we give priority to content. Ritual seems like a façade—we want to know what lies behind the façade.

But in non-western cultures, such activities as singing, dancing, healing, rain-making, life crisis ceremonial and public mourning are not façades or masks drawn across life. They are the meaningful stuff of life itself. Without ritual there would be no sociality, no collective power, no sharing of life's central and most meaningful moments. [...] 'It is form indeed,' Mary Douglas (1982: 36) comments, ' but inseparable from content, or rather there could be no content without it. It is appearance, but there is no other reality.' For many people in non-western cultures, ritual is culture.

Perhaps the best starting point in attempting to define ritual is to think of it as the collective dimension of intimate, emotionally significant life. It is collective action at those points where this reaches deep into personal, sexual and intimate emotional experience. Hence sexual intercourse is not necessarily a ritual, but if it occurs during a preordained 'honeymoon' following a public marriage ceremony it is. A young woman's first menstruation is not a ritual, but her puberty ceremony makes it so. To eat food is not ritual, but to participate in a public feast is. What turns even the most intimate and physiological of personal experiences into 'ritual' is symbolic behaviour which makes it collectively acknowledged, sanctioned and controlled. And with collective control comes power.

Ritual is collective symbolic action which in the most powerful way organises and harmonises emotions. Without this, there could have been no early human language, no 'kinship', no culture. A society which was a mere assemblage of egotistic, competing individuals would have no ritual domain and could not have one. On the other hand—turning to the opposite extreme—let us visualise an imaginary society whose members were unwilling to eat, to make love, to speak, to mourn their dead or to do anything unless they were sure that what they did formed part of a collective act. In such a society, each person would try to synchronise her or his behaviour with that of others—with the result that life would seem 'ritualised' to an extreme degree.

This is why 'form' in ritual is so important. It is simply not possible for humans to synchronise their behaviour collectively without reference to recurrent, standardised, memorable patterns. To Westerners, this may make ritual seem insincere or artificial. How can genuine tears—as at a funeral—be brought on to order at a precise moment determined in advance? How can a chorus legitimately express joy or love? It is thought that no act which has to be directed or controlled collectively can be as valid as the spontaneous action of an individual. This, however, says much about the individualistic assumptions of western culture. It helps to explain 'the poverty of our rituals, their unconnectedness with each other and with our social purposes and the impossibility of our having again a system of public rituals relating our experiences into some kind of cosmic unity' (Douglas 1982: 38). In general it can be said that societies or groups value ritual to the extent that they value the maintenance of collective solidarity, and disregard it to the extent that individualism becomes the dominant ethic.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Follow-up to What Ever Happened to Modernism?, part 1: Shakespeare, Federici, & the devaluation of women

My focus may be shifting somewhat here, but I'm by no means done with literature or blogging about literary matters. Indeed, before moving on, I have some unfinished business to attend to regarding What Ever Happened to Modernism? As long as my essay about that book was, still I had to leave certain topics more or less unaddressed, or less fully explored than I had originally intended. (Isn't it remarkable what we think of as long anymore? As if the essay is anywhere near as long as a full-length essay we'd have read easily prior to the advent of blogs. Fact is, I'm just an amazingly slow writer, so the thing felt interminable. But I digress, even more pointlessly than usual.)

First, having re-read the post a few times, I now wish I had indeed written more about the historical "responses of artists to [the] situation" described by Silvia Federici (for those keeping score at home, I'm referring to the second block quote from Federici in that post, the one that ends with the reference to Rabelais), especially the stuff on Shakespeare I'd ambitiously hoped to include. The title to Federici's Caliban and the Witch, after all, is an explicit reference to The Tempest, a play which is also invoked by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker in their excellent book, The Many-Headed Hydra, in the opening chapter about the wreck of the Sea-Venture in 1609. They write:
The wreck of the Sea-Venture and the dramas of rebellion that played out among the shipwrecked suggest the major themes of early Atlantic history. These events do not make for a story of English maritime greatness and glory, nor for a tale of the heroic struggle for religious freedom, though sailors and religious radicals both had essential roles. This is, rather, a story about the origins of capitalism and colonization, about world trade and the building of empires. It is also, necessarily, a story about the uprooting and movement of peoples, the making and the transatlantic deployment of "hands". It is a story about exploitation and resistance to exploitation, about how the "sappe of bodies" would be spent. It is a sotry about cooperation among different kinds of people for contrasting purposes of profit and survival. And it is a story about alternative ways of living, and about the official use of violence and terror to deter or destroy them, to overcome popular attachments to "liberty and the fullness of sensuality".

We are by no means the first to find heroic significance in the story of the Sea-Venture. One of the first—and certainly the most influential—was William Shakespeare, who drew upon firsthand accounts of the wreck in 1610-11 as he wrote his play The Tempest. Shakespeare had long studied the accounts of explorers, traders, and colonizers who were aggressively linking the continents of Europe, Africa, and the Americas through world trade. Moreover, he knew such men personally, and even depended on them for his livelihood. Like many of his patrons and benefactors, such as the Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare himself invested in the Virginia Company, the spearhead of English colonization. His play both described and promoted the rising interest of England's ruling class in the settlement and exploitation of the New World.
No doubt I would have skillfully summarized this material and artfully incorporated it into the essay. Anyway, my point here is not to damn Shakespeare by aligning him with the powerful, but to merely remind us that he was a real person with real interests, living in a specific time and place. In any event, while The Tempest may have "promoted the rising interest of England's ruling class", and indeed Shakespeare's own interests as an investor, the figure of Caliban has long served as a symbol for Latin American rebellion and resistance to colonization. Meanwhile, the figure of Caliban's mother, Sycorax, "the witch", has remained invisible, both in the play and to the revolutionary imagination, Federici says. In Caliban and the Witch, then, Federici places her "at the center-stage, as the embodiment of a world of female subjects that capitalism had to destroy: the heretic, the healer, the disobedient wife, the woman who dared to live alone, the obeha woman who poisoned the master's food and inspired the slaves to revolt."

Federici invokes Shakespeare again, in passing, in an extended exploration of the degradation of women that accompanied the transformation of the working class over the course of the 15th to 17th centuries, as part of a process through which women became defined as "non-workers", where any work they did out of the home was now called "housekeeping", and as such devalued, and "[m]arriage was now seen as a woman's true career":
This was for women a historic defeat. With their expulsion from the crafts and the devaluation of reproductive labor poverty became feminized, and to enforce men's "primary appropriation" of women's labor, a new patriarchal order was constructed, reducing women to a double dependence: on employers and on men. The fact that unequal power relations between women and men existed even prior to the advent of capitalism, as did a discriminating sexual division of labor, does not detract from this assessment. For in pre-capitalist Europe women's subordination to men had been tempered by the fact that they had access to the commons and other communal assets, while in the new capitalist regime women themselves became the commons, as their work was defined as a natural resource, laying outside the sphere of market relations.
Perhaps you can begin to see why I decided not to include this material. Just too much background to cover in order to get to what is really a supplementary point in the course of a review. (There's nothing stopping me here though!) Federici goes on to discuss changes in the family, which
began to separate from the public sphere and acquire its modern connotations as the main centre for the reproduction of the work-force.

The counterpart of the market, the instrument for the privatization of social relations and, above all, for the propagation of capitalist discipline and patriarchal rule, the family emerges in the period of primitive accumulation also as the most important institution for the appropriation and concealment of women's labor.
With these shifts in society, "the insubordination of women and the methods by which they could be 'tamed' were among the main themes in the literature and social policy of the 'transition'." With respect to social relations, "throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, women lost ground in every area of social life" including "a steady erosion of women's rights". Women were attacked and vilified in the popular and intellectual literature of the period:
Women were accused of being unreasonable, vain, wild, wasteful. Especially blamed was the female tongue, seen as an instrument of insubordination. But the main female villain was the disobedient wife, who, together with the "scold," the "witch," and the "whore" was the favorite target of dramatists, popular writers, and moralists. In this sense, Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew (1593) was the manifesto of the age. The punishment of female insubordination to patriarchal authority was called for and celebrated in countless misogynist plays and tracts. English literature of the Elizabethan and Jacobean period feasted on such themes. Typical of this genre is John Ford's 'Tis a Pity She's a Whore (1633) which ends with the didactic assassination, execution and murder of three of the four female characters. Other classic works concerned with the disciplining of women are John Swetman's (1633) which ends with the didactic assassination, execution and murder of three of the Arraignment of Lewed, Idle, Forward, Inconstant Women (1615); and The Parliament of Women (1646), a satire primarily addressed against middle class women, which portrays them as busy making laws in order to gain supremacy over their husbands. Meanwhile, new laws and new forms of torture were introduced to control women's behavior in and out of the home, confirming that the literary denigration of women expressed a precise political project aiming to strip them of any autonomy and social power. In the Europe of the Age of Reason, the women accused of being scolds were muzzled like dogs and paraded in the streets; prostitutes were whipped, or caged and subjected to fake drownings, while capital punishment was established for women convicted of adultery.
No doubt most of this literary output was dreck; it's Shakespeare we remember. It's interesting, though, that it's his play that is dubbed by Federici a "manifesto for the age". Certainly the title seems capable of naming the age and what happened in it. But my admittedly hazy memory of the play has it as rather more playful and ironic about the "taming" attempted and (in the play) provisionally achieved. Perhaps this is one measure of Shakespeare's comparative "responsibility" as an artist? I'm reminded of a passage from Josipovici's chapter on Shakespeare in On Trust. He writes:
Where Marlowe had embraced the new powers given him by the Elizabethan state by placing on that stage men whose power over both their fellows and the audience depended on their rhetoric, men with whom we feel Marlowe the playwright identifies, Shakespeare, more realistic, more responsible, made his plays out of the recognition of the ambiguous nature of play. Marlowe, like Verdi, exults in the ability of the protagonist, through his voice, his speech, his song, to transcend reality, to give body to our desires, and we love him for it and pay to be thus transported. Shakespeare, like Mozart, never forgets the limits of that power as well as its dangerous ambiguity.
I was reminded of this passage, it's true, but I also had it readily to hand, since I've had it sitting in a draft post for, literally, more than three years, where I'd also stashed this sentence from “What was Chaucer really up to?”, a review by Josipovici of several Chaucer-related books, which is collected in The Mirror of Criticism:
The responsible artist is the one who is aware of the inevitable failure of all language, its narrow ideological base, and who uses his art to bring this out in the open.
The responsible artist. More responsible. I had had some notion, three years ago, of meditating on this idea, exploring its implications in the context of what we mean by the aesthetic, and by political or didactic art. (Perhaps Joanna Russ can help me here. But more on her later.) I didn't get far with it at all. Since that time, I've written a fair amount about the need to situate an artist within his or her political time and place, including the review of What Ever Happened to Modernism? itself ("Literature is not Innocent", I also blogged). But the question of what it means for the artist to be responsible, which may not resemble calls for what the artist should do, has eluded me. Perhaps, though I remain uncomfortable claiming that artists should be expected to do any given thing, it feels accurate to say that a responsible artist manages to avoid merely transmitting (or endorsing) the dominant ideologies of his or her situation, though it seems unavoidable that those will be reflected in the work, in some way. This ambivalence, however slight, perhaps, allows the work to become available to readers or viewers from outside that situation. Shakespeare's Caliban is able to find his audience. Which is probably a good place to end this post. Further examination of the responsibility of the artist will have to wait for another post. As will further follow-ups to the Josipovici review (which follow-ups should actually be more clearly literary in nature than this one ended up being).

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Ethan on Caliban and the Witch

It should be obvious by now that I consider Silvia Federici's Caliban and the Witch an important book. What was the word I used in the last post? Indispensable? Yeah, that's right. Unfortunately, I've merely referred to it here and there, in glowing terms perhaps, but not in much detail. It deserves far more and better attention than I've been able to give it, both for its own arguments and for the other areas of study it points us towards (some already existing, cited by Federici, and some not, but suggested as questions left raised but unanswered).

This is why I've been so happy to see Ethan devoting time and space to the book lately. Not only has he excerpted several passages on his commonplace blog for your perusal, but he has stated his intention to write about each passage at his main blog, 6th or 7th. Unsurprisingly, the early results have been excellent. So this post exists mainly to tell you to go read, if you haven't already, Ethan's set of posts discussing Caliban and the Witch (as of this writing there appear to be four: one, two, three, four).

More Directions

A third event this past Spring helping to both focus and expand my reading and thinking was a much happier occurrence than the other two: a workshop I attended at the Free School here in Baltimore, led by Silvia Federici, titled "Feminism, the Commons, neoliberal violence and the eco-crisis" (see Federici's short essay "Feminism and the Politics of the Commons"). The workshop turned out to be an excellent, wide-ranging, though inevitably all-too-short discussion. Though it took place in April, I've only just now begun transcribing my notes from that day. I hope to be able to convert them into something useful for sharing here, in particular Federici's remarks about the Italian Wages for Housework movement from the 1970s. (New names added to the list: Leopoldina Fortunanti, Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Giovanna Franca Dalla Costa, Selma James [wife of C.L.R.].)

Though the workshop was not strictly speaking a discussion of Federici's indispensable book, Caliban and the Witch, I did take the opportunity to begin re-reading that book prior to the event. This was an altogether excellent decision on my part. First, doing so refreshed my memory of some crucial history relevant to modernism, providing me with material that I needed in order to finally finish my painfully long-gestating review of Josipovici's What Ever Happened to Modernism? This was an unexpected but wholly welcome development (I had more than once given up the review for dead). Second, I had inevitably forgotten many of the book's details, though I'd internalized some aspects of the contours of her overall argument. It's good to be reminded of the details too, especially in given all that I've read and learned since the first reading, making many of these details more meaningful to me now. Third, much like Rich's Of Woman Born and Ruddick's Maternal Thinking, Caliban and the Witch is a bibliographical goldmine, this time from a more specifically history of capitalism perspective, as well as feminist. Just tons of reading to be done.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Directions in Feminism

I've blogged in the past about wanting to read more deeply in feminism, but though I knew of some of the authors I wanted to sample, I have to admit that I was unsure of the direction I wanted this reading to take me. This had more to do with wanting to make the best use of my time, given my already existing concerns. And though I did intend to read such authors as Andrea Dworkin and Mary Daly and Catherine MacKinnon (and still do), I somehow felt uncertain about the path I should take through the literature. I needed some help.

Then this past Spring, I learned of the deaths of two woman writers whose existences, not to mention their bodies of work, were previously completely unknown to me—Sara Ruddick and Joanna Russ. In March, Ruddick's New York Times obituary informed me of her classic book, Maternal Thinking, the mere title of which set off a series of hopeful connective explosions in my mind. I ordered the book immediately and read it greedily upon its arrival. Then I was intrigued by Ethan's May Day post remembering Joanna Russ, the feminist critic and science fiction writer whose fiction "was everything science fiction should be and very rarely is: experimental both in style and content, feminist, vicious, sure as hell not techno-utopian". I knew right away that I was going to need to read this writer, too (and I read with interest other memorial posts, for example by Matthew Cheney and, especially, Timmi Duchamp).

That I had never heard of either Ruddick or Russ, while frustrating, now seems weirdly appropriate, given the arguments Russ herself made about the exclusion, and disappearance, of women from male-written and -dominated histories and canons. A writer such as Emily Dickinson, for example, while certainly recognized for her greatness, and indeed canonized, is systematically isolated from her female literary influences, so that she is seen as odd, as having come from nowhere, relevant to no one but herself. In my own reading life, I have often meant to read more women writers, but I had great difficulty coming up with names to pursue or people to ask. When I did happen upon one I liked, she seemed to pop up, again, out of nowhere, connected to no one else. Or there'd be one name, or three, but they were still dwarfed by the number of apparently worthy male writers still and constantly coming to my attention. Some of this personal history was a function of my own now-eradicated desire to "keep up", and much of it, I am sure, was simply a function of being male myself. But even (especially?) as I focused more and more on modernism, here too, the writers I sought out and subsequently read were almost exclusively male.

While Russ emerges as a science fiction writer, and theorist of science fiction, of considerable interest to me, both Russ and Ruddick have emerged as vitally important feminist thinkers and all important pointers towards other thinkers and writers (this is true even though I've still, to date, read just one book by each of them; in Russ's case, it's the novel The Female Man, which includes an introduction featuring several fascinating passages from Russ's criticism, as well as material from interviews and letters: it is really this introductory material, along with certain portions of the novel, rather than the novel as a whole, which has made Russ seem central; Ethan's various posts on Russ, as well as our conversations, have contributed mightily as well). In Ruddick's case, I was attracted to her book because, as I've noted here previously, it was really the politics and practices of birth and of childcare that originally moved my feminism in a more radical direction. I quickly perceived that her project fit in with what I have been thinking, but which I have had difficulty articulating, in part because I've been extremely wary of coming off as the Man pronouncing on birth matters to women. That my thinking has been heavily influenced by the experiences of the women in my life, as well as their own ideas, has not removed this feeling of wariness and uncertainty. Ruddick, among other things, argues on behalf of a conception of mothering as a (non-automatic) choice to respond to the demand for care. That this demand is usually made of women, and responded to by women, forms a crucial part of the experience of women, while also, in a practical sense, pointing towards a certain kind of politics, in which care, and its demand, are central.

I think Maternal Thinking is a great book. As I said above, I read it with great excitement. Here, finally, was the book I'd been wanting to read, the arguments I wanted to know and expand on. By placing birth and care central to a political argument, but, crucially, without resorting to any kind of essentialism, Ruddick both made a lot of sense and helped solidify my own sense of things. Even better, it opened up a vista of possibilities for future reading and study, in feminism, philosophy, history, and science. Before long, I was reading Adrienne Rich's great book, Of Woman Born (itself a bibliographical goldmine) and Susan Bordo's Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body and The Flight to Objectivity (seriously, how could I resist a book by that title?? It turns out that book is not quite what my fevered imagination thought it would be. It's much better and more complicated than that. Incidentally, I had of course heard of Rich, though never read her poetry, but I'd also heard of Bordo, courtesy of Stan Goff, through whom I'd also learned some years ago of Maria Mies). Most of these authors refer in places to famous works by Barbara Ehrenreich & Deidre English (including For Her Own Good, a book I'd read years ago, but which somehow did not point me towards other reading), and especially to Evelyn Fox Keller's Reflections on Science and Gender and Carolyn Merchant's The Death of Nature (the latter book being another Goff pointer). The list of authors and titles to investigate grows ever longer, yet is much more focused than before (and the intention to read Dworkin, Daly, MacKinnon, and others remains, but now I feel better about where to go, how their works will fit in with what I've already read).

Here, then, is a body of literature, a community of study and political activity, previously more or less invisible to me, self-described leftwing feminist white male of a certain age. (Check out the skimpy Wikipedia pages for most of these authors, too.) My plan is to explore some of these books and ideas in the coming months.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

"Hey, didn't you used to have a blog?"

So BDR asked me recently. Indeed, it has been very slow here these last few months. But fear not! I've kept busy reading and thinking (though, alas, not actually writing) about a variety of bloggable topics, and I hope to soon be able to return some focus here. I'd spent a huge amount of time on my long essay on Gabriel Josipovici's What Ever Happened to Modernism?, an essay that was in many ways a culmination, however imperfect, of several years of thinking and reading. In a sense, that piece serves as an ending to one period of this blog and a beginning of, or opening onto, the next. My desire to complete it prevented me from working on much of anything else, but I also had trouble mustering the energy and concentration necessary to attend to even it for weeks on end. Hence light blogging. In truth, I've also been distracted by other things; blogging hasn't been a priority. Those distractions continued after the post went up, plus I felt some relief at having finally posted it, to the point that I lacked the will to post anything else for a while. Hence no blogging. But, without making any promises of frequency, I expect that to be changing soon.

However, at risk of some awkward bleggalgazing, as BDR calls it, though not of the "why am I doing this" variety, the truth is also that there's been something unsatisfactory about blogging for me. In part this is because I have all too often wanted it to be too many different things at once and have, one by one, simply failed to make it be almost all of those things. And I've noticed that in the periods when posting is slow here, I've nevertheless had countless items I've wanted to share, whether it be in the form of links or passages from books, but which I have essentially been unable to do anything with. I opened a Twitter account (God, that must've been two years ago) in part to keep up with some of the bloggers I liked who had also done so, not wanting to miss their interesting links, etc. For a time, I was using it to pass on links myself, though I was aware that not everyone who reads this blog had migrated to Twitter. And, it turns out, Twitter is an even bigger time-suck than blogs are (ignoring for now the shittiness of the interface). It quickly became overwhelming, much like my huge volume of RSS feeds, except that with Twitter you have to stay on all the time in order to make any sense of it. So I stopped using it, or checking it, except rarely out of bored curiosity.

So much for links. As for passages I wanted to share, long ago I started posting some here in entries marked "Noted", but I was never really satisfied with that either. They seemed to sit oddly in the mix of whatever else I might have up on the front page, and, of course, like any other post, they quickly got lost in the archives. Worse, many passages I held off on sharing because I thought they warranted a real post, with my own long-winded thoughts. Sometimes these posts actually appeared but usually not.

I still haven't figured out what, if anything, to do about sharing links. But I'm seriously considering following the examples set by two top friends of the blog, Stephen Mitchelmore of This Space and Ethan of 6th or 7th, both of whom have set up separate entities for the purpose of sharing quoted passages. Stephen's is a tumblr page, Of Resonance (the title continuing the Blanchot phrase of his blog's title), which he uses for literary passages, as well as short quotations and YouTube clips, among other things, leaving This Space devoted to his essays and reviews; while Ethan's is simply another blog, intended as a commonplace site. I'm more likely to do what Ethan has done, if not as comprehensively, if only because I can't access tumblr from work, and it would be annoying to be unable to access my own site. So don't be surprised if something like that appears in the coming weeks. In the meantime, maybe actual blogging will have resumed here?

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Notes on What Ever Happened to Modernism?

It’s a classic case of "be careful what you wish for". Along with a select few others, I have been writing about the work of Gabriel Josipovici for years, all the while lamenting that he wasn’t more widely read. I imagine that most of us expected more of the same as we anticipated the release of his latest book of criticism, What Ever Happened to Modernism?—the book itself would be up to his typically high standards, but it would sink relatively quickly into oblivion, largely unread or under-reviewed. These expectations were turned upside down when prior to the book’s release a pseudo-interview appeared in the Guardian highlighting some passing remarks Josipovici makes late in the book about such high-profile English writers as Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, and Julian Barnes. The result was a ridiculous controversy, which threatened to overwhelm the book’s arguments. As a result, for good and bad, it turned out that the book was much more widely read and reviewed than most of us anticipated. Reviews continue to trickle in, ranging from the ridiculous (Eliot Weinberger’s clueless review in the New York Review of Books, ably handled by both Stephen Mitchelmore at This Space and the blogger at Grand Hotel Abyss; please also see Stephen’s own unique review of the book, from last October, which in part responded to the early burst of incomprehension) to the excellent (Max Cairnduff’s review at his blog Pechorin’s Journal; incidentally, I think it's no coincidence that the better reviews have appeared at blogs rather than the mainstream journals). Here is mine.

I think the book is just as necessary as Josipovici’s earlier books On Trust, The Book of God, and the collection The Singer on the Shore. In the course of this essay, there are two aspects of the book I would like to devote special attention to. First is the central role played by "the disenchantment of the world". Second is what I think is a perhaps understandable, though real, miscalculation in the last few chapters of the book, chapters which have been given an overwhelming amount of attention by most reviewers, attention which has not served the book well, though, as noted above, it has perhaps attracted new readers (good and bad). Effectively, reviewers have all too often ignored or misunderstood the former, while taking undue offense at the latter.

The bulk of the book is devoted to an exploration of what modernism, for Josipovici, is. His definition, of course, is not the only definition of modernism available to us, which is but one reason for the confusion surrounding the book (for some salient remarks on this point, in this case with respect to James Joyce, see Stephen Mitchelmore's most recent post). For Josipovici it has to do with art's awareness of and response to the condition of being modern, which in part means that the world has become "disenchanted", among other things throwing sensitive artists into a crisis of authority. Allow me to quote from Mark Thwaite's concise description of the problem:
In a world that moved from being viewed by the vast majority through a sacramental lens, to one where earthly powers had ever more secular explanations, the problem of authority became a problem for art and artists. Why and in what way did the artist have authority to speak? And how could that question inform the art that the artist produced, so that their work did not exhibit the bad faith of pretending that question away. [...] Do artists seek to re-enchant the world (and who/what gives them authority to do so) or to respond to its disenchantment?
How, under such circumstances, can the artist create? For whom does he or she create? Here, then, is Josipovici:
Here the desire, even the need, to create comes to be seen not as a gift but as a curse. For while the desire to create seems to be the most natural thing in the world, something we are all born with, what is it in a world without sure relation to either tradition or authority but a meaningless self-indulgence? When the social trappings of art fall away, when patronage disappears and the artist is forced to compete in the market-place for the sale of his goods, can there be any justification for art other than the desire for money and fame? […] in today's world there is no place for natural, spontaneous creation; everything we do seems false, laboured, second-hand; it feels like padding, pretence, a lie perpetrated by those who like to think of themselves as artists, in collusion with a market which knows that enough people need to feel they are in touch with some higher truth to make the art business profitable.
The book opens with a series of quotations from four writers faced with this dilemma, selected by Josipovici from among many possible options to "stand for a century of pain, anxiety and despair", to "stand for what has been called the Crisis of Modernism": Mallarmé ("...each day discouragement overwhelms me..."; "...I am disgusted with my self; ... and cry when I feel myself to be empty and cannot put pen to the implacably white paper"), Hugo von Hofmannsthal ("I have quite lost the faculty to think or speak on any subject in a coherent fashion"; "...the language in which it might perhaps have been given to me not only to write, but also to think, is [...] a language of which I do not know even one word, [...] in which I may once, in my grave, have to account for myself before an unknown judge."), Kafka ("I can't write. I haven't written a single line that I can accept. . ."), and Beckett ("I speak of an art. . .weary of puny exploits, weary of pretending to be able, of being able, of doing a little better the same old thing, of going a little further along a dreary road." "The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.") These quotations all come from the years 1850 to 1950, which is to say the years that are commonly seen as the Modernist period. Josipovici is aware that this makes it all too easy to reinforce the conception of Modernism as a style or period, or both, either way "as something safely behind us", rather than, as he argues, "a coming into awareness by art of its precarious status and responsibilities, and therefore as something that will, from now on, always be with us". This "precariousness" is seen as a condition of being modern; Modernism becomes, then, "a response by artists to the 'disenchantment of the world'". Josipovici then spends several chapters exploring this disenchantment, using the work of several artists and writers as illustrations of the problem and of the array of artistic responses to the problem.

He begins by discussing two Albrecht Dürer engravings from 1514: St. Jerome in his Study and Melancholia. The former, Josipovici writes, depicts the saint as calm, at ease, "bathed in warm sunshine", "at one with himself and with his God as he works". The latter engraving is, by contrast, full of chaos, furious energy, depicting "art in competition with God", Melancolia as "a terrestrial craftsman cut off from all tradition and therefore incapable of productive work". She is inactive "because all work has grown meaningless to her": "St. Jerome shows us what has got lost; Melancolia I what we are left with.” In the following century, this new situation, combined with new possibilities presented by the printing press, is seen as the occasion for comedy for Rabelais and Cerventes. Both writers, in acknowledging the absurdity of writing in isolation for an unknown audience—where in the past storytellers told their tales directly to an audience—undercut the authority of their own narratives, reminding the reader how things really are—remember, after all, this is just a story. Don Quixote
dramatises the way we as readers collude in this game because we want, for the duration of our reading, to be part of a realised world, a world full of meaning and adventure, an enchanted world. It is no coincidence that the novel emerges at the very moment the world is growing disenchanted.
Somewhat later we have another important example in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (not discussed in the book, though Josipovici has written about it elsewhere), in which the narrator hilariously never quite gets around to getting moving on telling the story of his life. Several key pages are spent on the poetry of Wordsworth (many reviews have indeed taken note of the unique presence of this poet in a book on Modernism) and the philosophical works of Kierkegaard, in particular in connection with problems of authority, anxiety, and inward-looking religious practice.

To be blunt, I don't think enough attention has been paid to what Josipovici says about the disenchantment of the world; it is, as Max Cairnduff writes, “absolutely critical to everything that follows”. Reviewers have missed the centrality of this, while also missing the related observation by Josipovici that this disenchantment is generally assumed to be "a Good Thing", "since it led us from an era of superstition to our modern era of common sense and scientific understanding". Which is to say that for Josipovici, as Stephen Mitchelmore emphasizes, it is "not necessarily A Good Thing". This is no small point, yet it is treated as if it were. It is in fact the main point. But how are we to approach this question, from where we sit? It is, admittedly, not easy. I submit that most readers are unlikely to be receptive to this message, and understandably so, since the very structure of our lives seems to argue against it. It is, however, a message I think we need to hear. I'm not going to spend a lot of time on the problem of authority (this is covered to my satisfaction by both Cairnduff and Mitchelmore in the posts I've linked above). I'm instead going to complicate the matter of the disenchantment of the world, but in a way that I hope will help to clarify some of what is at stake.

In The Book of God (1988), his marvelous study of The Bible, Josipovici wrote the following:
. . . once Luther stood up and asserted the need to speak the truth as he saw it and not pay lip-service to tradition, things could never be quite the same again. We tend to see Luther's break with the medieval church, like Spinoza's with Jewish tradition, as the triumph of light and integrity over the forces of obscurantism and hypocrisy; but this is to see it from their own point of view. It is important, however, to grasp what gets lost as well as what is won in such revolutions. . .
Our point of view, or what feminists call standpoint, can be an obstacle; further, we can learn a lot by considering matters from alternative standpoints, especially those that are underrepresented in official histories. We view these events, respectively, from Luther’s and Spinoza’s perspectives—we see them as signposts, if you will, on the way to our current secular world, a world, in its modernity anyway, that most of us see as desirable and inevitable, if perhaps besieged. We identify with the smug self-congratulation of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment—the very labels tell us how to think about them!—and all too rarely do we consider what was lost, or if we do, we are rarely likely to consider that what was lost is worth worrying about or mourning. Josipovici, along with other critics and writers, has looked past this point of view, to consider the perspectives of artists. And indeed artists can and do offer us glimpses into changes that took place, worlds that were lost. But they do it from their own standpoint, which is a standpoint often at some remove from the events. For when we look at this period from the standpoint of artists, we are necessarily also looking at it also (but not completely) from the standpoint of the elite, or an elite, for in this period artists were either themselves elites, or at least patronized by elites, whether aristocratic, clerical, or bourgeois. So when we think of the declining of traditional authority, we are thinking of not only the Catholic Church, but also the feudal lords. In their place, eventually, are the various Protestant churches, and the bourgeoisie. This was a long process, covering almost the entire period under discussion, in one way or another.

But what if we try to look at this period from the standpoint of ordinary people? What if we think of the disenchantment of the world as a very real thing, with events affecting real people, and not simply as an increasing sense "people" had that things were changing? Because the period we're talking about just happens to correspond exactly with the long transition from feudalism to capitalism. It is the period of Karl Polanyi’s “Great Transformation”. The late feudal period was, again from the perspective of ordinary people, marked by elites banding together, by the bourgeoisie and aristocracy putting aside their longstanding differences to defeat the various diverse anti-feudal movements that had characterized the preceding few centuries, which had taken the form of peasant revolts, popular heresy and millenarian movements, not to mention everyday forms of passive resistance, and so on. So, rather than the traditional conception of a smooth or inevitable "transition" from feudalism to capitalism, it is, I think, more accurate to view capitalism as the counter-revolution (just as the United States Constitution is an outgrowth of a counter-revolution, undermining the more popular democratic tendencies of the American Revolution itself). In this light, common people were caught in between the replacement of one form of traditional authority, which they actively (as well as passively) resisted for centuries, and the newer authority imposed by the emergent capitalist social relations and mode of production, which they also actively resisted.

In this context, then, what is the disenchantment of the world? I see it as two related things, always keeping in mind these shifting modes of authority faced by ordinary people. First is the loss of the commons, and all that entails, including access to means of subsistence, control over reproduction, and community life, including festivals, holidays, gossip, mutual care, and resistance. Second, following from the first and no less important, is the disciplining of labor, which provided the backdrop for the philosophical/scientific attack on the body, as in Descartes, and theories of the state, as in Hobbes, which form twin, if occasionally opposed, pillars of our modern scientific and intellectual heritage. Related to both of these is the privatization of religion, or what could be called the "Christianization of the masses"; we know about the inwardness of mainline Protestantism itself (again, Josipovici dwells on this important point in his discussion of Kierkegaard, a writer he also discusses at length in On Trust), but the Catholic confession dates from this period as well—private religious practice being imposed, just as the more communal religious practices are actively being driven out. The Protestant Reformation was in many respects a massive land grab, another significant moment in the general enclosure of the commons. And this is the period of the witch-hunts, which, far from being the irrational attacks from the undifferentiated, ignorant mob of our popular imagination, were instead more or less systematic secular campaigns against common practices and beliefs, primarily those practices and beliefs of women in the areas of reproduction; a campaign, not incidentally, fully supported by some of the biggest names in our scientific legacy.

As Silvia Federici puts it, in her indispensable book, Caliban and the Witch (note: in the next few paragraphs, all quotes are from Federici, unless otherwise specified, but I am informed here by Marx, Polanyi, Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, Maria Mies, Fernand Braudel, and Giovanni Arrighi, among others):
What died was the concept of the body as a receptacle of magical powers that had prevailed in the medieval world. In reality, it was destroyed. For in the background of the new philosophy we find a vast initiative by the state, whereby what the philosophers classified as "irrational" was branded as crime.[...] "Knowledge" can only become "power" if it can enforce its prescriptions. This means that the mechanical body, the body-machine, could not have become a model of social behavior without the destruction by the state of a vast range of pre-capitalist beliefs, practices, and social subjects whose existence contradicted the regularization of corporeal behavior promised by Mechanical Philosophy. [...] This is how we must read the attack against witchcraft and against that magical view of the world which, despite the efforts of the Church, had continued to prevail on a popular level through the Middle Ages. [...] Eradicating these practices was a necessary condition for the capitalist rationalization of work, since magic appeared as an illicit form of power and an instrument to obtain what one wanted without work, that is, a refusal of work in action.[...] Magic, moreover, rested upon a qualitative conception of space and time that precluded a regularization of the labor process. [...] From [the ruling class's] viewpoint it hardly mattered whether the powers that people claimed to have, or aspired to have, were real or not, for the very existence of magical beliefs was a source of social insubordination. [Note: the above has been collapsed into one paragraph, with elisions bracketed off, in order to save space; emphasis is in the original]
This is the disenchantment of the world, and it is, in my opinion, undeniably a tragedy, a regrettable loss, one very much worth mourning. This is not at all popular view in the mainstream, but neither is it popular among leftists or Marxists, who seem just as wedded to the telos of progress as any liberal or capitalist, and who are generally more than happy to consign to the dustbin of history the "rural idiocies" of those ignorant masses dispossessed in this period of "so-called primitive accumulation". Indeed, one of the better reviews of What Ever Happened to Modernism? was by Tim Black at Spiked. Black’s review is from a largely Marxist perspective, and though he calls the book "important" (and actually offers an interesting defense of realism), he also calls it "irritating" and "reactionary". For another recent example of this general attitude, in his book First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, Slavoj Žižek wrote "if there is one good thing about capitalism, it is that, precisely, mother earth now no longer exists" and "we should remain resolutely modern and reject the all too glib generalization whereby critique of capitalism morphs into the critique of 'instrumental reason' or 'modern technological civilization'. " No one who seriously considers the history of capitalism from the perspective of not only what actually happened to those people who were expropriated in the past, but also what is happening to those who are being expropriated today, still, in the same ways, but in different places, can so easily dismiss such "morphed" critiques.

But we were talking about artists. Despite what some proponents of political art would have us believe, it is not the artist's job to report on political events. Nevertheless, their work is instructive. Dürer’s The Fall of Man (1510), which depicts Adam and Eve being ejected from Eden, can be read as "[evoking] the expulsion of the peasants from their common lands". His Monument to the Vanquished Peasants (1526), following the Peasant War of 1525, could "suggest that the peasants were betrayed or that they themselves should be treated as traitors" and "has been interpreted either as a satire of the rebel peasants or as homage to their moral strength". Dürer was a follower of Luther, and his work is said to have "helped to disseminate the teachings of the Reformation". Luther himself condemned the peasant rebellions; Dürer perhaps agreed, but as an artist saw what he saw, and was able to convey some measure of ambivalence. His version of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was but one example of what was at the time a common artistic theme, which with its Biblical imagery reflected the horrible, very real suffering experienced by very real, ordinary people, who, in a situation of enforced scarcity, were constrained from maintaining their own subsistence in the traditional manner. The first half of the 16th century resulted in "the absolute impoverishment of the European working class, a phenomenon so widespread and general that, by 1550 and long after, workers in Europe were referred to as simply 'the poor'." Meat disappeared from workers’ diets—"a historic setback . . . compared to the abundance of meat that had typified the late Middle Ages." Here is Federici expanding on this point, bringing Rabelais back into our story:
Not only did meat disappear, but food shortages became common, aggravated in times of harvest failure, when the scanty grain reserves sent the price of grain sky-high, condemning city dwellers to starvation. This is what occurred in the famine years of the 1540s and 1550s, and again in the decades of the 1580s and 1590s, which were some of the worst in the history of the European proletariat, coinciding with widespread unrest and a record number of witch-trials. But malnutrition was rampant also in normal times, so that food acquired a high symbolic value as a marker of rank. The desire for it among the poor reached epic proportions, inspiring dreams of Pantagruelian orgies, like those described by Rabelais in his Gargantua and Pantagruel (1552), and causing nightmarish obsessions, such as the conviction (spread among north-eastern Italian farmers) that witches roamed the countryside at night to feed upon the cattle.
Allow me to leave here my detour into this working class history. I'd planned on delving more into the responses of artists to this situation, with a special emphasis on Shakespeare (including a digression into Josipovici's use of the work of the medieval historian Peter Brown in his elucidation of Richard II in On Trust; for this, let me instead refer the reader to my piece, "A world about to be lost"), but I believe I've said enough. My point, I think, is sufficiently made.

Few people know this history; fewer still look at it from the standpoint of the ordinary people affected by its forward march, though some are sensitive to the difficult problems that history has wrought. We are most of us ordinary people ourselves, who identify all too completely with the winners. So it's probably the case that most anyone reading the book likely does see the disenchantment of the world as a good thing, if they think of it at all. Josipovici quotes the following from a footnote in T.J. Clark's Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism:
I realize that I shall be taken here and elsewhere to be idealizing pre-modern society, and inventing a previous watertight world of myth and ritual, agreed-on hierarchies, implicit understandings, embodied places, and so on. There is no easy way out of this dilemma. Of course pre-Modern societies (and certainly the ones existing in Europe immediately before the spread of mercantile capitalism and the seventeenth-century crisis) were conflicted and ideologically incomplete. I am on the side of historians who have fought against the picture of a pre-modern Europe characterised by absolute cultural uniformity, immovable religious consensus, the unthinkability of alternative views of the world, etc. Nonetheless, if we do not make a distinction between societies built, however inefficiently, upon instanced and incorporated belief, with distinctions and places said to be inherited from time immemorial, and societies driven by a new kind of economic imperative, in which place and belief are subject to constant revision by the very forces that give society form, then I reckon we forfeit the chance of thinking critically about the past two hundred years. To call such comparative thinking 'nostalgia' (or in the present techno-ecstatic conjuncture, 'Luddism') is just the latest form of philistinism about history in general.
As such, the book is fighting an uphill battle, and not just against philistinism. To the extent that reviewers have addressed the matter at all, nostalgia is indeed usually the charge (regardless of explicit attempts to anticipate and forestall such a charge).

Instead, responses have most often focused on the final two chapters of the book, in which Josipovici turns his attention back to the question raised by the title. What, indeed, ever happened to modernism? Unfortunately, these chapters, while enjoyable reads (large stretches of them are just as fascinating as the rest of the book), are not nearly as successful as the book up to that point, or indeed the rest of his criticism outside of this book. In part this is simply because he mentions several big English literary authors by name (McEwan, Amis, Barnes, etc) without making it clear why they in particular are found wanting. In this way, I think, it has been easy for admirers of those writers to read these passage as attacks. Which is exactly what happened, especially with the very first reactions. For myself, this was the first time in all of his work that I felt he wasn't speaking to me. These two chapters are written, fairly explicitly, to an English audience, with references to "these shores" and the English literary world in particular. At one point, while extolling the virtues of Clark's book, he notes that Clark, by "Writing about episodes in a history",
is free to explore a whole web of stories rather than trace any linear sequence, and thus restore a sense of history being made—by artists, by events—rather than simply lived out, that the blind alleys down which artists have gone at certain periods of their lives are as important as their achieved successes, and that different responses are called for in pre-First World War France, in post-Revolutionary Russia and in America after the Second World War.
I like this a lot, and I especially like the bit about blind alleys (I'm always thinking artists' minor or lesser works are too easily dismissed in this culture because we are impatient to move on to the next book or album or mp3 file). But I'm thrown, just a little, but the clause about the need for different responses. Not because it strikes me as wrong (it does not), but because in the previous chapter, one of the examples he uses of a writer who we read "to pass the time, to reassure ourselves that the world has meaning, and then . . . leave . . . and move on to the next book", is the American Philip Roth. He subsequently spends more time (though still not much) on Roth than he does on any other contemporary writer, because Roth has a reputation for being playful and "experimental", and Josipovici senses that his readers will have mistaken his book as an extended argument for experimental art—"Is that not what Modernism is about?" No, it is not: "If that is your reaction you have not really been taking in what I have been saying." It's clear enough to me, a longtime reader, that Josipovici has not equated Modernism with experimental art, but it's not difficult to imagine it not being clear to readers unfamiliar with his argument from his other work, given the general sense of Modernism as indeed being about experiment and innovation (on the other hand, does anyone really think of Kafka as an experimental writer?). Frankly, his remarks about the big shot contemporary writers are not terribly persuasive (even though I agree with most of them).

Related to this is a curious feature common to many of the reviews I've seen, positive and negative. These readers have noticed that Josipovici favors certain writers over others. They've even noticed to some extent what seems to differentiate those writers. Yet, having read the book, they can still do little more than wonder "why can't you like both" kinds of writers? As if two distinct species of writer were being posited. Some have expressed this point with considerable irritation, annoyed that they are being told what to like. They are being told no such thing. It is apparently easy to miss that Josipovici admits that he has enjoyed many of the novels by the authors in question. But he also says that, when he first read such writers, he wondered why they didn't touch him the way other writers did. They were enjoyable, diverting narratives, but he never felt compelled to return to them. It could be said that this disparity has animated his critical career. Anyway, it is not being suggested that readers cannot like whatever they want, just as it is not being asserted that Martin Amis and Ian McEwan are terrible writers. What is, however, being suggested is, first, what characterizes the condition of being modern, and, second, what an appropriate response to that condition might be. In this context, I wonder if it could be argued that Philip Roth is responding appropriately as an American writing after the Second World War. And if not, it seems to me that his response would still need to be situated in that American context (I happen to think this is a potentially fruitful line of inquiry, considering the American tradition of so-called post-modernism, but then I am an American). Of course, as Josipovici readily admits later in the book, these kinds of assessments are necessarily affected by our own personal situation (it is in this context that he admits that the Marxist perspective on Modernism perhaps has a point).

One of the factors leading to the writing of this book was Josipovici's dismay at the adulation showered on Irène Némirovsky's posthumous novel, Suite Française. Written in 1942, and set in the war, the novel would have been old-fashioned at the time, and in its mode is little more than "run-of-the-mill middlebrow narrative", yet was treated as a modern classic when discovered and finally published in 2004. So, in Chapter 14 ("It Took Talent to Lead Art Astray"), Josipovici discusses Némirovsky's novel, comparing it to a novel of similar vintage, also about the war, by Claude Simon. Némirovsky, he says, "is simply unaware of the inappropriateness of what she is doing, and one has to say that by her writing she makes 'a written renunciation to all claim to be an author'." In this case, it is useful to see the excerpts from the two novels, to see what Josipovici is claiming about the approaches taken by the two writers, to see what he means by an "appropriate" response. But, again, his problem is less with Némirovsky, who could only do what she felt was right, but in the out-sized praise her work received:
[T]he question is not why she should have written as she did, but what has happened to our culture that serious and intelligent and well-read reviewers, not to speak of prize-winnings novelists and distinguished biographers, many of whom have studied the poems of Eliot or the novels of Virginia Woolf at university, should so betray their calling as to go into ecstasies over books like Némirovsky's while, in their lifetimes and now after their deaths, ignoring the work of novelists like Claude Simon, Georges Perec, Thomas Bernhard and Gert Hofmann.
This, then, is a fuller expression of the question asked by the title. But in the very next paragraph he admits that "To answer this would require a sociologist, perhaps, and another book." He is not really in a position to answer the question. It could be said that the book itself intends to raise the question rather than to answer it. Well, one can almost hear it being said (indeed, Weinberger says it with much annoyance), if he's not going to answer the question, what is the point? The point, I think, is that some questions need to be sensitively and intelligently posed before they can be answered. That is, since the disenchantment of the world is a general cultural problem, the question raised by the title cannot be answered via literary criticism alone, or through art history.

Towards the end of the book, Josipovici writes that "There cannot, then, be a definitive 'story' of Modernism. We cannot step outside it, much as we would like to, and pronounce with authority on it. We can only try to persuade people to see it from our point of view." His book is just such an attempt at persuasion, though he has been accused of elitism, of smugness (!!), of nostalgia, of snobbery. Rather, I think, he is peculiarly positioned to be able to perceive things many of us cannot, in part because of the details of his biography. In the final paragraph of the book, he allows that his particular affinities "may be largely because of who and what I am". He closes the book like this:
The late R.B. Kitaj compared Cézanne's rootedness in his native Provence to what he called the 'diasporist' ... imagination of the uprooted Picasso, and he suggested that at some deep level Modernism and the diasporist imagination go together. This may be true if we have a flexible enough notion of disapora to accept that an apparently rooted Frenchman like Bonnard or Englishwoman like Virginia Woolf could also have created a 'diasporic' art—and then one would want to look at Bonnard's relocation to the South of France in the latter part of his life as a kind of exile in which he went with his problematic wife, and at Virginia Woolf's sense of herself as a woman excluded from a male-dominated society. To that extent the Marxist critique of Modernism I mentioned at the start may have a point: Modernism may not be a consequence of the crisis of the bourgeoisie but it may be the product of a general European rootlessness in the wake of the French and Industrial revolutions. All will then depend on whether we see such rootlessness as pathological or as giving those who are imbued with it a certain vantage point, allowing them to see things which might otherwise have remained hidden. In other words, are we to see our own history, that which makes us what we are, as something which blinkers us or which sharpens our vision. This is, in itself, of course, a very Modernist question.
For all that Josipovici is advancing a particular perspective, he leaves it up to us to see for ourselves. Can it not be said that each of us is potentially our own diaspora? We have been fragmented, dispersed, alienated. We constitute a working class massive, but identify all too much with the very power that destroyed the history described above and seems unable to avoid destroying everything it touches, on the way alienating us from not only our own labor, but our very existences, though some of us, not only artists, are afforded glimpses of other possibilities and are receptive to art that suggests such possibilities, and otherwise questions and breathes. This is why all of this matters, and why Modernism continues to speak to us, through the din of received histories and imperial narratives, fictional or otherwise, and why we need critics like Gabriel Josipovici.

Related posts:
"Smoothness of Surface"
"A world about to be lost"
"The very notion of wholeness"
Notes on "The Bible Open and Closed"
"Modernism against Modernity"
Notes in advance of reading What Ever Happened to Modernism?
Follow-up to this post

Review of In a Hotel Garden
Review in The Quarterly Conversation of Goldberg: Variations (and follow-up)
Review of Everything Passes

Friday, June 10, 2011

Translation revisited

Last week, our friend BDR, in linking to Stephen Mitchelmore's recent meditation on Peter Handke's fiction, reported an opinion of a professor acquaintance who told him "if you can't read Handke in German don't bother since Handke's main interest is the language." With all due respect, I call bullshit on this. I cannot read Handke, or anyone else, in the German, but I would be much the poorer for not having read the English translations of Slow Homecoming, Across, or Repetition, to name only three from the 1980s. They are remarkable works in their own right. I'd go further and say that few works written originally in English from that same decade compare favorably with them. So to say I shouldn't have bothered? Nonsense.

On a related note, back in March, translator Daniel Hahn had a post at Words Without Borders in which he took issue with how translations are reviewed. He rants thus (emphasis his):
what makes me crazy is when the reviewer praises something that I did and gives the impression that I’m not there. By all means compliment the author on the tightness of the plotting, on the deftness of the characterization, and ignore me—they’re supported by my work, of course, but marginally. But a reviewer who thinks he can praise the rhythm, the texture, the beauty of the prose, the warmth and wit of the voice, without acknowledging who’s responsible—as though those things in an author’s original simply reappear automatically after the mechanics of translation have been applied to a text—that’s a reviewer who simply has no understanding of what translation is. There’s a reason the copyright in my translations belongs to me and not the original author. The plot and the ideas and the themes aren’t mine, but the words are, all of them, and the way they all fit together, too. And if that’s what you’re reviewing, I want credit. (Or, for that matter, criticism.)
This strikes me as, frankly, wrong. All three of those Handke titles I mentioned above were translated into English by Ralph Manheim. Another of my Handke favorites is the memoir about his mother, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, which was also translated by Manheim. Perhaps it's simply Manheim I like! I think not.

I began reading Hahn's post expecting it to contain utterly banal points with which I would trivially agree. After all, it is all too believable that reviewers both tend to ignore the work of translators and have little understanding of what it is the translator does. But Hahn takes it further, appearing to claim that the translator is entirely responsible for "the rhythm, the texture, the beauty of the prose, the warmth and wit of the voice". In fact, the translator is responsible for conveying as best as possible the original author's rhythm, texture, beauty, warmth, and wit. The translator makes the best possible decisions within constraints presented by the original work.

Along with those Manheim-translated works mentioned above, I've also read Handke books rendered into English by other translators, such as Scott Abbott and Michael Roloff, and have never gotten the impression I was reading a stylistically different writer. I have just begun reading Charlotte Mandell's translation, from the French, of Mathias Énard's recent novel, Zone. The last novel I read was, coincidentally, Mandell's translation of Jonathan Littell's remarkable novel, The Kindly Ones. Oddly, they have very little in common at the level of the sentence! And neither of them bear any obvious resemblance whatsoever to Mandell's translations of Maurice Blanchot, which themselves are instead stylistically similar to other Blanchot translations, for example, those by Ann Smock or Lydia Davis (meanwhile, Davis' own fiction is nothing like her translations of Blanchot). This point aside, which I am sure I have belabored, Hahn here, in so easily separating plotting and characterization from the language used, demonstrates as little appreciation of fiction as the standard mainstream reviewer.

Daniel Green, highlighting Hahn's post, agrees with him too readily, though he makes this excellent point, which is the point I'd originally thought Hahn was going to make, as I began reading him: "Too many reviewers make too many facile judgments of translations in which the translation itself drops out. . ." Unfortunately, Dan uses this as an opportunity to once again all but throw his hands up when it comes to translations. He writes:
This is the tragedy of translation: Many of us will read some great books only in their translated versions, and thus we won't finally really know fully what makes them great. It's also possible we might read some rather mediocre books that have actually been made better by their translations. Given the cachet translated fiction seems to have acquired among some readers (its very lack of widespread availability, its lack of attention from the major newspaper book reviews perhaps allowing the devotee of translated fiction to feel one of the enlightened few), I think it likely some translated books of this latter kind are getting more attention than they deserve--under the prevailing circumstances, any new translated work deserves notice. Making authors and their work available through translation is an entirely worthy service, but understanding their limits are also important. We shouldn't make claims about the underlying work--on which the translation is a variation and therefore a new work--we can't possibly validate without in fact reading it.
There are some good points mixed with the bad here. I think he's right that there is some excessive valorizing of translated works for their own sake, and it's of course trivially true that translations have their limitations, and that we should be cognizant of them. However, where Daniel Hahn wants to isolate plot and structure from the "rhythm, texture, beauty, warmth, and wit" of the language, Daniel Green insists, as he often does, that because we necessarily read some great books in translation, "we won't finally really know fully what makes them great" because of that distance. The problem with this is that it assumes that "knowing fully" what makes great books great is the ultimate object of reading.

There once was a time when a literate person knew and could read multiple languages as a matter of course. There are no doubt countless reasons why this is no longer the case, at least in the Anglo-American world. And, of course, literacy itself is more widespread. Anyway, regardless of the reasons, many of us rely entirely on translations if we are to read anything originally written in a language other than our own. There is undeniably a distance between the original work and its possibly multiple translations. Some of us, myself included, have looked on this situation with anxiety. How do I know which translation to choose? What am I missing? How will I ever know or understand the work in question? As such, we owe good translators a great debt of gratitude, and we should always remember what it is that they do for literature. And certainly praising any quality of the prose without mentioning its status as translation is opening a reviewer up to easy and deserved criticism. But the history of literature is rife with misreadings and poor interpretations and context-free assessments, not to mention misleading translations; indeed, the history of literature arguably is these misreadings. We do the best we can with what we have. That so many of us require translations in order to read most of the great works of world literature is no reason not to read them, nor is it a reason to refuse to critically engage with such works at whatever level we see fit.

As readers, we can never "know fully" any work, translated or not. We are always at some remove from the work. Treating art as a set of objects to be assessed and judged is finally little different than treating it as a set of commodities to be bought and sold.