Monday, December 31, 2012

Books Read - 2012

As is the annual tradition, here is the final list of books I completed reading in 2012, 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 would normally be detailed comments and observations, including remarks on my favorite books of the year, plus a statistical breakdown, but for private reasons the stats will be heavily truncated and comments non-existent (links are also somewhat incomplete), unless the urge to update this post hits me at some later date.

1. Lightning Rods, Helen DeWitt
2. Feminist Theory: from margin to center, bell hooks
3. The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, James C. Scott
4. Zone, Mathias Énard (Charlotte Mandell, trans.)
5. Liquidation, Imre Kertész (Tim Wilkinson, trans.)
6. Stoner, John Williams
7. Dreaming of Dead People, Rosalind Belben
8. Mavis Belfrage, Alasdair Gray
9. Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and self-recovery, bell hooks
10. I., Stephen Dixon
11. End of I., Stephen Dixon
12. Slowness, Milan Kundera (Linda Asher, trans.)
13. Meyer, Stephen Dixon
14. Now that you're back, A.L. Kennedy
15. Dogma, Lars Iyer
16. Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil, Timothy Mitchell (also)
17. Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde
18. An Autobiography, Angela Davis
19. Eva's Man, Gayl Jones
20. Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century, James and Grace Lee Boggs (also)
21. The Notebook, Agota Kristof (Alan Sheridan, trans.)
22. The Proof, Agota Kristof (David Watson, trans.)
23. The Third Lie, Agota Kristof (Marc Romano, trans.)
24. The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker's Notebook, James Boggs
25. Open City, Teju Cole
26. My Happy Life, Lydia Millet
27. On With the Story, John Barth
28. Territorial Rights, Muriel Spark
29. Making Things Better, Anita Brookner
30. The Rules of Engagement, Anita Brookner
31. A Bend in the River, V.S. Naipaul
32. Mao II, Don DeLillo (re-read)
33. The Magic Barrel, Bernard Malamud
34. The Quiet American, Graham Greene
35. Silent Racism: How Well-Meaning White People Perpetuate the Racial Divide, Barbara Trepagnier
36. Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, David Graeber
37. Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life, Vivian Gornick
38. Introduction to Modernity, Henri Lefebvre (John Moore, trans.)
39. My Struggle, Book One, Karl Ove Knausgaard (Don Bartlett, trans.)
40. Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?, Harold Bloom
41. Near to the Wild Heart, Clarice Lispector (Alison Entrekin, trans.)
42. Dublinesque, Enrique Vila-Matas (Rosalind Harvey & Anne McLean, trans.)
43. Barley Patch, Gerald Murnane
44. The Modern World-System III: The Second Era of Great Expansion of the Capitalist World-Economy, 1730s-1840s, Immanuel Wallerstein
45. The Modern World-System IV: Centrist Liberalism Triumphant, 1789-1914, Immanuel Wallerstein
46. The Woman in the Body: A Cultural Analysis of Reproduction, Emily Martin
47. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution, Carolyn Merchant
48. The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith
49. Garnethill, Denise Mina
50. Exile, Denise Mina
51. Resolution, Denise Mina
52. Ripley Under Ground, Patricia Highsmith
53. Human Wishes/Enemy Combatant, Edmond Caldwell
54. Woman on the Edge of Time, Marge Piercy
55. Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle, Silvia Federici
56. The Gift, Lewis Hyde
57. Stories in the Worst Way, Gary Lutz
58. Infinity: The Story of a Moment, Gabriel Josipovici
59. Prosperous Friends, Christine Schutt
60. Time is the Simplest Thing, Clifford D. Simak
61. Steelwork, Gilbert Sorrentino
62. The Passion Artist, John Hawkes
63. Why Call Them Back From Heaven?, Clifford D. Simak
64. Red the Fiend, Gilbert Sorrentino
65. The Lime Twig, John Hawkes (re-read)
66. Aberration of Starlight, Gilbert Sorrentino (re-read)
67. City, Clifford D. Simak
68. Florida, Christine Schutt (re-read)

Some statistics
Number of books written by men: 38.5
Number of books written by women: 29.5
Number of books which were acquired via the Big Dalkey Get: 0
Number of other Dalkey books: 4
Number of books in translation: 10
Number of books by writers known primarily to me through their blogs: 2 (Lars Iyer, Edmond Caldwell)
Number of books that were borrowed from the library: 7
Number of books read on the Kindle: 0

Fiction or Poetry (or sufficiently literary memoir):
Number of books: 49
Number that are poetry: 0
Number that are memoirs: 1 (possibly Knausgaard's My Struggle here)
Number that are re-reads: 4 (not counting two novels I read twice this year, but according to my arbitrary rules only counted once: Human Wishes/Enemy Combatant and Infinity)
Number of authors represented: 15
Number of books by woman authors: 20
Number of woman 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: 13
Number of non-American, English-language authors: 10
Number of books in translation: 9
Number of authors of books in translation: 7
Number of translated books by woman authors: 4
Number of foreign languages represented in translation: 4 (French, Hungarian, Spanish, Norwegian)
Most represented foreign language: French (5: 3 Kristof, 1 Kundera, 1 Énard)
Number of Nobel Prize-winners: 2 (Kertész, Naipaul)
Number that could be categorized as science fiction: 4
Number of science fiction books written by women: 1
Number that could be categorized as crime fiction: 5
Number written by women: 5

Number of non-fiction books: 19
Number of books by woman authors: 9.5
Number of books in translation: 1 (Lefebvre, from the French)
Number that are biographies or letters or memoirs: 2 (Gornick's of Emma Goldman; Davis's auto-bio)
Number that are philosophy or about philosophy: 2 (Lefebvre, Merchant)
Number that are books of criticism or essays: 3
Number that are about politics or economics or history: 13
Number about pop music: 0
Number about science: 2 (Martin, Merchant)
Number about feminism: 6
Number about racism or history of slavery or African American experience: 5
Number about parenting or education: 0
Number that are anthropology: 4 (Scott, Martin, Graeber, Hyde sort of)

Comments & Observations:
Possibly to come. Or not. See this post for passing remarks on many of the novels listed above, especially in the second half of the list, including favorite novels of the year.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Where did it all go? Fiction and blogging and favorite books

I've had occasion recently to read through some of this blog's six-plus years of archives. Turns out I used to write about literature! Quite frequently! Ha! It's difficult to imagine having actually written some of those posts—when did I have the time, the energy? When was I thinking about that stuff? Where did it all go? In any case, reading some of those older posts, reading recent blog- and other online sources, engaging in some enjoyable off-blog literary conversations, and, oh yeah, reading a bunch of good fiction, have all helped reinvigorate me just a little bit, to remind me of some of what I might have forgotten. I'm hopeful to get things moving here. Well, hopeful might be too strong a word. We'll see.

To reflect some of this, I've refreshed and jumbled the literary links in my blogroll. Blogs newly added include Danny Byrne's — see his excellent review of the first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard's marvelous novel/memoir, My Struggle — Daniel Davis Wood's Infinite Patience — his two most recent posts (one, two) are fascinating meditations on the omniscient narrator (which he calls "the knower") in Edward P. Jones remarkable novel from 2003, The Known World — and Ethan's new blog, Marooned Off Vesta, which seeks to "develop [his] own personal poetics of science fiction and of poetry", and which takes as one of its key influences, among other books and authors, the perhaps seemingly unlikely figure of Gabriel Josipovici, in particular his book What Ever Happened to Modernism? (reminder: my review is here). Samuel R. Delany and Joanna Russ are more obvious inspirations, of course, but topics of other posts have included T.S. Eliot and Hart Crane and Denise Levertov. Good stuff. (Also added to the blogroll is David Winters' Why Not Burn Books, which however seems mostly to link to his typically excellent reviews that appear elsewhere - a handy service nonetheless.)

Since I'm providing some literary links, I would be remiss if I didn't mention long-time fellow traveler Stephen Mitchelmore's This Space, still my most essential literary blog. Like me, Stephen's posting has been very light on quantity this year, but unlike me, he's taken the time to write several excellent longer form reviews and essays. His recent essay on one of my favorite books, V.S. Naipaul's The Enigma of Arrival, is a particular highlight, as are reviews of new novels from Josipovici (Infinity: The Story of a Moment) and Enrique Vila-Matas (Dublinesque), as well as his own review of Knausgaard's My Struggle, which, as is so often the case, led directly to my purchase of that book.

And I have been reading a fair amount of fiction lately. If I had to name the authors that have received the most attention (or at least the most attention to which I took enough notice to acquire and/or read a book) in my literary cohort (as defined by people whose blogs I read and twitter feeds I follow), I'd name, in loosely descending order, László Krasznahorkai, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Lars Iyer, Clarice Lispector, Helen DeWitt, Gerald Murnane, Christine Schutt, Enrique Vila-Matas, and Gabriel Josipovici. All with new books, or books newly translated into English.

I've read books by all of these writers this year, except for Krasznahorkai, whose Satantango I have so far been unable to get anywhere with. DeWitt's very funny Lightning Rods I mentioned early in the year; Iyer's even funnier Dogma, ditto. Knausgaard's My Struggle is a great book - I eagerly await the English translation of volume II! - and I'd like to have something interesting to say about it, but there've been several good reviews of it (including especially the two linked above), so I feel no particular need to add another, at least for now. Lispector's first novel, Near to the Wild Heart was one of four newly translated Lispector novels published by New Directions this year, and was also my introduction to the Brazilian writer. It left me with little I could say about it, other than wanting to express a recognition that she was the real deal and that I will be reading more by her (also, in truth, I wasn't writing anything at the time I read it, so the result is that there is, several months on, little now left to report). But some stunning, often baffling writing in that novel. I enjoyed Vila-Matas' Dublinesque, but, again, would refer you to Stephen's review or David Winters'.  Gerald Murnane's Barley Patch seemed promising, and I liked quite a bit of what he was doing with it, but ultimately it didn't thrill me, sorry to report. I found myself bored with it, at times (though admittedly sometimes this boredom interested me).

The semi-dullness I experienced at the hands of Barley Patch, followed by a clutch of non-fiction (world-systems analysis and feminism), had me grasping for crime fiction to clear the air a bit. So I read the first two of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley books (The Talented Mr. Ripley and Ripley Under Ground), and the three novels comprising Denise Mina's Garnethill trilogy (Garnethill, Exile, Resolution). I'll have nothing whatsoever to say about these books, except that I found them interesting and entertaining and, especially with the Mina trilogy, sigh, gripping (I know, I know). But they did help clear some space.

Since then, I've been on something of a roll - reading great fiction, reading well, thinking about it, talking about it off-blog - yet struggling to find time or energy to write about it. An enthusiastic, passing mention, in the first Marooned Off Vesta post of Marge Piercy's 1976 feminist science fiction classic, Woman on the Edge of Time, encouraged me to read it immediately. I'd already had a friend's copy lying around gathering dust, and had by coincidence been eye-ing it as a possible next read. And I loved it. My initial sense was that it was formally conventional, that it was the ideas and the situation I was responding to, but as I read further, and discussed it, I began to question this sense. It encouraged me to really think, again, about what we take for granted in fiction.

A review by Dan Green of Diane Williams' new collection of stories ends with a comparison of Williams' work with Gary Lutz's. Next thing I knew, I'd ordered and read Lutz's brilliant and bizarre and fascinating early story collection, Stories in the Worst Way. And in Lutz I've found a new favorite writer (and may have fallen in love a little bit) (see also this fantastic and hilarious interview with Lutz at the Paris Review; on whether the stories in his new collection, Divorcer, are more "accessible": "Even in the lengthier of these new stories, despite their elliptical and fragmentary nature, there is something at least approximating an ongoingness of a sort, if not exactly a plot."). Thinking about Lutz's strange stories while also contemplating certain effects in science fiction was a useful and, for me, helpful exercise of recontextualizaton. Around this time I was reminded, via a twitter exchange, of Christine Schutt, who has a new novel out, Prosperous Friends. I'd previously read and liked her novel Florida, when it had been part of the scandalous class of 2004 National Book Award fiction nominees (that is, they were all books written by women). I was also aware of her name from the Dalkey Archive backlist. Prosperous Friends starts out as if it's going to be merely another entry, if a fantastically written entry, in the tired "dissolution of a marriage" novel genre, but it turned out to be much better and more interesting than that. Incidentally, Lutz, Schutt, and Williams were all edited by Gordon Lish - who now emerges as a rather more interesting figure to me than he had been previously (given his association in my mind with Raymond Carver, who I've never read, nor intend to).

Mixed in here was Josipovici's Infinity - an excellent novel, which I am also not prepared to write about at all, yet. I'd again refer you to Stephen's review (and I'd recommend, too, David Winters' review, at PN Review Online, though it's unfortunately subscription required).

Since then, over the last few weeks, I've been alternating some science fiction from Clifford D. Simak (two novels - Time is the Simplest Thing and Why Call Them Back From Heaven? - which, despite some clunkiness and other issues, have, like the science fiction mentioned above, helped me think about fictional problems in ways I haven't quite before) with multiple novels each from Gilbert Sorrentino (Steelwork and Red the Fiend) and John Hawkes (The Passion Artist), two giants of American post-war so-called post-modernism who I'd read quite a bit of before starting this blog but had not much returned to in subsequent years (long review of Sorrentino's Mulligan Stew notwithstanding). Included here are re-reads of Sorrentino's Aberration of Starlight and Hawkes' The Lime Twig. Early returns are that the fiction of Sorrentino and Hawkes holds up, unlike that of other early favorites, such as Martin Amis.

I've covered a lot of ground here, mentioned a lot of writers. But what about those writers not published at the major houses, or even the already better-known independents? Neither FSG nor New Directions or Dalkey Archive? Not Grove, nor even Melville House? Do we as readers take chances on absolute or relative nobodies? I don’t really have an answer for that. My guess is, on balance, no. But, the thing is, I've left out one writer, in the meandering list above - Edmond Caldwell. Caldwell's Human Wishes/Enemy Combatant is published by Say It With Stones, which primarily publishes poetry. They have it on their website; it retails for $15. It’s a decent-looking trade paperback, with entertaining back-cover copy in the place of blurb, plot summary, and author bio, in keeping with the spirit of the book. Yet I admit that I only know about the book, or took notice of it, because Edmond Caldwell has himself been a member of my blogging/tweeting circle (you may remember him from his blogs Contra James Wood and The Chagall Position). In connection with that, we’d blogrolled each other and linked to each other’s posts on occasion, and have exchanged some friendly e-mail. He was nice enough to send me a copy of the novel. I was already curious about it, but frankly, had little real idea what to expect. I’d gathered it included some material on the critic James Wood and, I admit, this made me a wee bit wary. I’d liked most of what he’d written about Wood’s domestication of various writers and their work, but still, I didn’t feel quite the animus towards Wood and at times wondered at the energy expended in the effort. And, to be honest, whenever Edmond posted a link to one of his stories appearing online, I had difficulty getting very far into them. While I had no trouble attributing this difficulty primarily to my own apparent inability to focus at all on fiction published online, this did little to mitigate my wariness. I admit to having fretted a little about how I'd read a novel by someone I'm friendly with (what I'd say, if asked). And when I received the book and read the apparently bland opening sentence (“They had just returned to the United States.”), I was even less sure … Yet, something nagged at me, a feeling that I’d want to read this novel, despite all of these trivial misgivings.

I needn’t have worried. This is a damn good novel. Better than that: it's fucking brilliant. I should here say that it was Dan Green's review of it that reminded me of the novel, which had slipped my mind and gotten filed away amid the post-move chaos over the summer. But, while Dan's review is positive, I feel he does some violence to the book (Steven Augustine objects on similar grounds as mine in his comments there, and he articulates these objections well). But at least it's a review! There are so few of them, and it very much deserves to be read and reviewed and discussed. I hope to have quite a bit more to say about Human Wishes/Enemy Combatant soon myself, but for now, let it suffice to say that it's frequently very funny, formally interesting, as well as being an excellent example of, horrors, politically viable fiction. I daresay it's an important book. Which I only mean in the best possible sense of: you should read it.

To finish up, were I to name my favorite new books of this year, I'd go with Human Wishes/Enemy Combatant; My Struggle; Dogma; Lightning Rods; and Infinity: The Story of a Moment.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Simplistic and Inaccurate

I'm sitting here minding my own business, decidedly not working on the various reviews or essays or other blog items I have rotting in the queue, not writing, and I glance at this week's New York Times Book Review, noticing as I do a generally very favorable review by John Jeremiah Sullivan of Nicholson Baker's new essay collection, The Way the World Works. And I am caught up short by an extended bit about an essay called “Why I’m a Pacifist", "Baker’s answer to the storm of opprobrium he endured after publishing" Human Smoke. Sullivan calls Human Smoke
a book-length argument that the United States was wrong to get involved militarily in World War II, and that we, along with the other Allies, only increased the overall number of dead by refusing to support a “dignified peace” with Germany. That’s a simplistic but I don’t think inaccurate version.
Now, John Jeremiah Sullivan seems like a nice enough writer. I've only previously read one piece by him, his essay about Axl Rose, which I found enormously sad and often moving, though also at times a bit cloying, in that sub-David Foster Wallace way that seems all too common anymore. I've heard overall good things about his book Pulphead (which I understand also contains the Axl piece). But, yes, his characterization of Human Smoke is indeed simplistic; unfortunately, it is also inaccurate.

Readers will no doubt vividly recall that I wrote two very long posts about that very book. I have no desire to recapitulate the arguments contained in them; they can be read (re-read!) at your leisure, here and here (plus, see also this shorter post of additional material). The point I wish to re-make here is simply that Human Smoke is no such "book-length argument". Granted, Baker seems to think it was, too! At least one could be forgiven for thinking so, based on the apparent content of his "Why I'm a Pacifist" essay. About which, Sullivan says the following:
Baker concentrates his defense (some would say restatement) on the idea that we may have hastened the Holocaust by joining the fight, or worsened it, or even helped to bring it about. There’s an entry in Goebbels’s diary in which he paraphrases a speech Hitler gave in December 1941, just after America’s entry into the war: “The world war is here,” Hitler supposedly said. “The annihilation of the Jews must be the necessary consequence.” Baker quotes one historian’s theory that when we chose to engage, Jews living under the Germans “lost their potential value as hostages.”

Some of Baker’s critics have claimed to find his argument historically vapid. They drive right past the fact that he was thinking along completely different lines, reading history not as a pragmatist but as a moralist, and asserting as he did so that this is a legitimate way to read history. He moves forward from the position that it’s wrong to kill people, to take life, and that wars are first and foremost large, organized killings of human beings, to be avoided whenever it’s in our power to do so. Thus far we don’t fault him. But the logic of Baker’s claim that we acted against those principles in responding with force to Hitler’s prior aggression, that we succeeded only in increasing the planet’s suffering, depends too much on an attempt to predict the thoughts of a Hitler — the behavior of a psychopath, in other words. Perhaps it’s true that Hitler unleashed the Final Solution, in its full horror, only out of desperation, but perhaps it’s the case that he would have done it later, and that he would have gone even further, once he’d entrenched his power, and that he would have killed people we don’t even know he had an interest in killing. To say that we have more than a guess at which of those hypotheticals is right amounts to sheer hubris. And when you are writing about the attempted massacre of an entire people, survivors of which are still living, more intellectual caution is in order. “War never works,” Baker might say (and writes here). And he’s right — war brings suffering; to say that it “works” is glib to the point of obscenity. But we lack the variables to play the alternative-­history game. We don’t get to find out how the world would look otherwise, if some dictator or madman had been left alone instead. (All the more reason not to go to war, Baker might reply.)
In this case, I'm prepared to take Sullivan's description of the essay more or less at face value, since I do remember Baker making similar sorts of noises by way of explanation when the book was being so fervently denounced. He'd have been better off not bothering. Again, I would refer readers back to my original essays on Human Smoke, linked above, for detailed reasons for why I think so, and indeed, back to Human Smoke itself. It is a damn good book, and Nicholson Baker has done it no favors by writing this defensive essay; his book is vastly more interesting and useful, and for that it remains important, than a "pacifist" argument against American involvement in World War II. And as usual, readers are under no obligation to read any book through the lens of the author's own interpretation.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Something of limited size

Here is another passage from Lewis Hyde's The Gift:
These stories, at any rate, from Anabaptist to anarchist, reflect a felt and acted-upon belief that life is somehow diminished by the codification of contract and debt. The opposition has been not only to those codified debts that secure the position of class, but to any codification that encourages the separation of thing and spirit by abandoning total social phenomena to a supposedly primitive past and thereby enervating felt contract. The burning of written debt instruments is a move to preserve the ambiguity and inexactness that make gift exchange social. Seen in this way, their burning is not an antisocial act. It is a move to free gratitude as a spiritual feeling and social binder. If gratitude is, as Georg Simmel once put it, "the moral memory of mankind," then it is a move to refreshen that memory which grows dull whenever our debts are transformed into obligations and servitudes, whenever the palpable and embodied unions of the heart—entered into out of desire, preserved in gratitude, and quit at will—are replaced by an invisible government of merely statutory connections.

I should now state directly a limitation that has been implicit for some time, that is, that gift exchange is an economy of small groups. When emotional ties are the glue that holds a community together, its size has an upper limit. The kinship network Carol Stack described in the Flats numbered about a hundred people. A group formed on ties of affection, could, perhaps, be as large as a thousand people, but one thousand must begin to approach the limit. Our feelings close down when the numbers get too big. Strangers passing on the street in big cities avoid each other's eyes not to show disdain by to keep from being overwhelmed by excessive human contact. When we speak of communities developed and maintained through an emotional commerce like that of gifts, we are therefore speaking of something of limited size. It remains an unsolved dilemma of the modern world, one to which anarchists have repeatedly addressed themselves, as to how we are to preserve true community in a mass society, one whose dominant value is exchange value and one whose morality has been codified into law.
This unsolved dilemma of the modern world: perhaps it is a false dilemma, or rather, perhaps it's simply unsolvable. Perhaps it's simply not possible to maintain/preserve/regain "true community in a mass society". But we have a mass society, and yet we desperately need true community (defining the elements that might make up this true community will have to wait for other posts). What are we to do? Beats me, frankly. It seems to me that on some basic level we need to recognize that the "mass society" does not work (indeed, is not intended to "work"), is incapable of giving us so much of what we need. And yet we justifiably desire to maintain certain features that were very likely not possible before the onset of mass society. Could an anarchism emerge that took seriously the need for small groups—took seriously concepts like Dunbar's number—while balancing that tension between the need for rootedness and the desire for mobility? (In a previous post, I touched on this tension in the context of a perceived opposition between Heidegger and Blanchot.) Perhaps finding a balance, but maintaining the tension, not favoring either, perhaps this is possible? But is there time?

Thursday, September 27, 2012

"The locus of ownership having nothing to do with it"

In his book, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, first published in 1982 (original subtitle: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property), Lewis Hyde tucks away in a passing footnote the following:
Capitalism is the ideology that asks that we remove surplus wealth from circulation and lay it aside to produce more wealth. To move away from capitalism is not to change the form of ownership from the few to the many, but to cease turning so much surplus into capital, that is, to treat most increase as gift. It is quite possible to have the state own everything and still convert all gifts to capital, as Stalin demonstrated. When he decided in favor of the "production mode"—an intensive investment in capital goods—he acted as a capitalist, the locus of ownership having nothing to do with it.
I absolutely love that Hyde manages in a throwaway line to offer a better definition of capitalism than appears most anywhere else.

The book overall is an interesting read, part anthropological survey, part philosophical investigation of art, among other things. The passage quoted above comes from chapter two (“"The Bones of the Dead"), in which he discusses the circulation of gifts in certain cultures, and comes after his re-capitulation of one of the points from the first chapter ("one man’s gift must not be another man’s capital") and a corollary:
the increase that comes of gift exchange must remain a gift and not be kept as if it were the return on private capital. Saint Ambrose of Milan states it directly in a commentary on Deuteronomy: "God has excluded in general all increase of capital." Such is the ethic of a gift society.
Anyway, returning to the definition of capitalism. The focus on surplus value as opposed to who owns the means of production is, to me, crucial. I've been reading lately some of the essays/rants by the blogger Jehu at Re: The People. Admittedly, I haven't read all that many of them (there's a lot there), my attention span being rather limited of late, but I've especially appreciated his insistence on the importance of surplus value, and by necessary extension, the length of the working day (this leads him to be incredibly harsh on academic Marxists, including David Harvey, who readers will know that I admire; on this point, at least, Jehu seems to me to have an excellent point), and his focus on the "fascist State" as capitalist. But as capitalist in the sense described by Hyde: the state is a capitalist. Not the spurious focus on Capitalism in this or that country, which drives me nuts, and, as mentioned, leads to stupid questions about whether slavery is or isn't capitalist, which is but one reason I've been driven somewhat away from Marxism (though not Marx), and towards world-systems analysis, a la Wallerstein.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Manufacturing what could not be discovered

After this weekend's post about defining capitalism, it was suggested that I take a look at Charles Tilly's essay "War Making and State Making as Organized Crime" (warning: the link takes you to a pdf that is riddled with an unbelievable amount of typos). It's a useful essay, which I may have something specific to say about later. But it reminded me of aspects of James C. Scott's work, in particular his Seeing Like a State (see previous posts on this book, here and here), and his more recent The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. The latter, as I've mentioned elsewhere, is primarily about the ways in which Southeast Asian "hill peoples" have (off and on, in differing combinations) avoided being incorporated into various states. As such, it ends up being an extended, fascinating discussion of what exactly a state, any state, really is. This is especially helpful, given the common tendency in the liberal so-called democracies for citizens to identify with the aims of the state, or to believe that certain swell-sounding stated aims are its real aims.

There is much in The Art of Not Being Governed that is worth sharing and discussing, but for now I want to leave you with this passage from the fascinating section on "ethnogenesis":
Once launched, the "tribe" as a politicized entity can set in motion social processes that reproduce and intensify cultural difference. They can, as it were, create the rationale for their own existence. Political institutionalization of identities, if successful, produces this effect by reworking the pattern of social life. The concept of "traffic patterns" used by Benedict Anderson to describe the creation by the Dutch colonial regime in Indonesia, virtually from thin air, of a "Chinese" ethnic group, best captures this process. In Batavia, the Dutch discerned, according to their preconceptions, a Chinese minority. This mixed group did not consider itself Chinese; its boundaries merged seamlessly with those of other Batavians, with whom they freely intermarried. Once the Dutch discerned this ethnicity, however, they institutionalized their administrative fiction. They set about territorializing the "Chinese" quarter, select "Chinese" officials, set up local courts for customary Chinese law as they saw it, instituted Chinese schools, and in general made sure that all those falling within this classification approached the colonial regime as Batavian "Chinese." What began as something of the Dutch imperial imagination took on real sociological substance through the traffic patterns of institutions. And voilà!—after sixty years or so there was indeed a self-conscious Chinese community. The Dutch had, to paraphrase Wilmsen, through an administrative order, manufactured what they could not discover.

Once a "tribe" is institutionalized as a political entity—as a unit of representation with, say, rights, land, and local leaders—the maintenance and reinforcement of that identity becomes important to many of its members. [...] The more successful the identity is in winning resources and prestige, the more its members will have an interest in patrolling its borders and the sharper those borders are likely to become. The point is that once created, an institutional identity acquires its own history. The longer and deeper this history is, the more it will resemble the mythmaking and forgetting of nationalism. Over time such an identity, however fabricated its origin, will take on essentialist features and may well inspire passionate loyalty. (pp. 264-5)
This seems to me to have all kinds of relevance beyond the specific sorts of examples Scott gives. That is, not only did the Dutch "manufacture what they could not discover" in creating a "Chinese minority" in Batavia, but consider how the "Dutch" (i.e., a ruling stratum identified as "Dutch") themselves manufactured the Dutch! The same is true everywhere: ordinary people become subsumed within states and statelets, becoming, over time, "French" or "English" or whatever.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Inseparable development of capitalism and racism

Readers will recall that earlier this year I was reading James & Grace Lee Boggs' 1974 book, Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century. Here is a passage from that excellent book, about the importance of racism to capitalism:
It is necessary to stress the inseparability of racism and capitalism in the specific historical development of this country, not in order to blame the capitalists and workers, but in order to rid ourselves of the widely held belief that racism has been an imperfection or wart on the face of capitalism in the United States.

Racism has been an integral part of the historical development of U.S. capitalism, enabling it to achieve the material abundance which has made it possible for Americans to pursue happiness and enjoy material comforts far beyond anyone's expectations or even imagination two hundred years ago. And whoever pretends that this is not so or that racism is some kind of "feudal remnant" which has stood in the way of U.S. capitalism developing productive forces without limit or of the common man's pursuit of material happiness, rather than the means by which these two goals have been achieved under U.S. capitalism, is propagating lies about the past and the present.

Today, because of the inseparable development of capitalism and racism, the main contradiction in the United States is the contradiction between its advanced technology and its political backwardness. We are a people who have been psychologically and morally damaged by the unlimited opportunities to pursue material happiness provided by the cancerous growth of the productive forces. As a result, the pursuit of happiness for most Americans means the rejection of the pain of responsibility and learning which is inseparable from human growth. Liberty has turned into license. Equality has become the homogenization of everybody at the lowest common denominator of the faceless anybody. Fraternity has become mass-man cheering and groaning at the various modern spectacles—sports, lotteries, and television give-aways.(p.181)
They talk about "U.S. capitalism", which for me is not a terribly meaningful distinction, in this case not least because of the crucial importance of racism to capitalism, period. Wallerstein demonstrates the extent to which the division of labor in the capitalist world-economy has always been racially organized, for the purposes in part of keeping workers separate.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Capitalism and Definitions

We have argued that the essential element of capitalism as a system is not, as is often contended, proletarian wage labor or production for the market or factory production. For one thing, all of these phenomena have long historical roots and can be found in many different kinds of systems. In my view, the key element that defines a capitalist system is that it is built on the drive for the endless accumulation of capital. This is not merely a cultural value but a structural requirement, meaning that there exist mechanisms within the system to reward in the middle those who operate according to its logic and to punish (materially) those who insist on operating according to other logics.

We have argued that, in order to maintain such a system, several things are necessary. There has to be an axial division of labor, such that there are continuous exchanges of essential goods that are low-profit and highly competitive (i.e., peripheral) with high-profit and quasi-monopolized (i.e., core-like) products. In order to allow entrepreneurs to operate successfully in such a system, there needs in addition to be an interstate system composed of pseudosovereign states of differing degrees of efficacy (strength). And there also have to be cyclical mechanisms that permit the constant creation of new quasi-monopolistic profit-making enterprises. The consequence of this is that there is a quite slow but constant geographical relocation of the privileged centers of the system. (xiv)
These words are Immanuel Wallerstein's, from his new prologue to the 2011 edition of volume III of The Modern World-System: The Second Era of Great Expansion of the Capitalist World-Economy, 1730s-1840s. I quote them here because definitions matter and we have too many of them for capitalism.

I have, in the last year or so, found myself embroiled in various online discussions here and there about capitalism and our current predicament, etc, in which the conversation can only go so far because we, the participants, are not operating under the same set of assumptions on what capitalism, in fact, is. I tend to avoid lengthy online back-and-forths, for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the inadequacy of my available devices (which means the mechanics of it are unpleasant). But also, where once I was quick to write lengthy responses to people, usually via email, now I shy away from them. In part, I don't want to lose a piece of writing in the bowels of another blog's comments, and I write too slow to effectively respond here. It's also true that I'm simply not read deeply enough in the Marxist or liberal economic literature to respond to certain kinds of pedantry. So if someone cites a particular of a given debate, I'm often at something of a loss. However, though I would like to deepen my reading of such literature, the truth is I'm only going to get to so much of it, and things are happening right now. My gut tells me that most of it is unnecessary.

A few years ago I read Ellen Meiksins Wood's Origins of Capitalism, and I found it very helpful. She is, of course, a Marxist, writing in the aftermath of the Brenner debates of the 1970s. She helped me to see a number of different things much more clearly than I had seen them before (for just one example, the state's role in enforcing propertylessness). I was further helped along by essays from the Midnight Notes Collective, and then David Harvey's book-length study of Marx's Capital, The Limits to Capital, as well as a couple of Harvey's other books. Then came the first volume of Capital itself, along with Harvey's online lectures, and the feminist approaches of Maria Mies (Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale) and Silvia Federici (Caliban and the Witch). The feminist works are crucial; they seem to take the analysis to its logical conclusions that too many Marxists seem unwilling to take it (so they said; but I had no trouble taking their word for it, given my own limited experience with the literature). Readers will notice that I've rehearsed this sequence before. All apologies. In any event, my point here is that something nagged at me. I was still having trouble understanding where it came from, and why, and it seemed really important that I do understand it, in order to wrap my head around the problems facing us today. Then I read Giovanni Arrighi's The Long Twentieth Century, my first exposure to world-system analysis, and many things began to fall into place in my mind. This led me to Wallerstein. First to his slim World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction, then to his now four-volume study, The Modern World-System. (David Graeber's work plays a big role here, too; I'm thinking a few of the essays in Possibilities, as well as the more recent Debt.)

I realized that what had troubled me were questions of focus and certain sets of assumptions. I had difficulty with the idea of a particular capitalist "state" (or "states" competing with each other) (though, indeed, Wood, in her Empire of Capital, had helped clarify for me the necessity of the state apparatus for capitalism), with the very focus on "mode of production", with questions and apparently long-running debates about such topics as whether or not slavery was capitalist, which seemed silly on their face (of course it was capitalist; for just one point, the feminist focus on how unpaid labor underpins the wage system is important here). I desired, and insisted, without knowing it, a longer view (somewhat ironic, considering the subtitle of Wood's book is, in fact, "a longer view"; it's not quite long enough), and a more detailed view. Arrighi's and then especially Wallerstein's books have helped me enormously, providing a framework in which things fit together much better (not like a puzzle, but like life, if you'll pardon the expression). Anyway, I provide the passage at the top of this post as a placeholder and reference point: this is the definition of capitalism I'm working from, the one that makes the most sense to me. Recent claims that we've already moved away from capitalism into a feudalism-like "rentism" seem to me to misunderstand both feudal arrangements and capitalism itself, and especially miss the ease with which the former historically shaded into the latter. There's nothing un-capitalist about monopolies or rent. Misplaced emphasis on wage labor and modes of production are distracting. Here Wallerstein continues:
Capitalism is a system in which the endless accumulation of capital is the raison d'être. To accumulate capital, producers must obtain profits from their operations. However, truly significant profits are possible only if the producer can sell the product for considerably more than the cost of production. In a situation of perfect competition, it is absolutely impossible to make significant profit. Perfect competition is classically defined as a situation with three features—a multitude of sellers, a multitude of buyers, and universally available information about prices. If all three features were to prevail (which rarely occurs), any intelligent buyer will go from seller to seller until he finds one who will sell at a penny above the cost of production, if not indeed below the cost of production.

Obtaining significant profit requires a monopoly, or at least a quasi-monopoly, of world-economic power. If there is a monopoly, the seller can demand any price, as long as he does not go beyond what the elasticity of demand permits. Any time the world-economy is expanding significantly, one will find that there are some "leading" products, which are relatively monopolized. It is from these products that great profits are made and large amounts of capital are accumulated.
I could go on, but will not, not now. But consider this a re-beginning, of sorts, on this topic.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Second Quarter Fiction Notes: The Johns Hopkins Connection

I read a bunch of fiction in the first half of this year, in an effort to cull the personal library. I was going to do a single re-cap post of this reading, with short remarks, but some of the remarks ran long. So I'm going to separate them out a bit. Here, then, are some notes about books written by two writers long associated with Johns Hopkins University here in Baltimore, John Barth and Stephen Dixon. (Oh, and the "second quarter" in the title is a misnomer of sorts, since the Dixon books were read in the first quarter, but no matter. No one but me's keeping score.)

On With the Story, John Barth - This is a short-story collection from 1996, Barth's first since his much-loved 1968 collection Lost in the Funhouse, a book I frankly found rather annoying. This is the first Barth I've read in years (I still have the enormous novels Letters and The Tidewater Tales sitting on my shelves; it remains to be seen whether I'll take the time to read them). I found that, overall, I enjoyed On With the Story. As is typical with Barth, story-telling is the story. He tries out different modes of telling stories, interrupts frequently to comment on the telling, foregrounds the artificiality of the constructions, writes in very playful, overly punny language that isn't afraid to be annoying, throws in theory about storytelling, including references to how this or that story measures up to the theories, etc. And there's an interspersed framing story throughout (which I suspect was new for the book, whereas the stories themselves all appeared elsewhere previously), with a couple on some kind of perhaps-but-it's-not-clear-last-hurrah vacation, the husband telling the wife stories, which are the stories in this book. All well enough done, some more interesting than others, some admittedly irritating (the sexual wordplay especially: William H. Gass also indulges in too much of this kind of boring guff), but what I really want to highlight is Barth's remarkable ability, amidst all of these meta-fictional methods, to nevertheless create characters and situations that seem real and that we care about. I know, I know; forgive me. Often this kind of observation is made as part of a criticism: why doesn't he just stop with all this tomfoolery and get back to telling the "real story"!? as if there is one somewhere in there in the absence of the so-called tomfoolery. Rather, I think it's fascinating how these so-called "games" both comment on and constitute the "real story". The characters actually attain whatever solidity they seem to have through these very "games" themselves.

I., End of I., & Meyer, Stephen Dixon - I had had four unread Stephen Dixon novels sitting on my shelves, and have now read three of them; the massive Frog remains. As I was reading these novels, I was also trying to decide whether Dixon's books would remain in my personal library, or be discarded. Ultimately, I decided that I like him just enough, and find him just interesting enough, to keep (On With the Story, on the other hand, was discarded, somewhat arbitrarily, I admit, since I clearly liked the book and found it similarly interesting, but I don't know...). In a post I wrote about Dixon several years ago, I said the following:
Dixon's fiction manages to be […] both experimental and realistic, as well as often being emotionally affecting. By exploring the areas of life usually ignored by so-called "realistic" fiction, by worrying at these lines of inquiry, teasing out countless permutations of a line of thought, Dixon risks irritating or even boring the reader. I think that in some way much of the tension in his fiction lies here. If we stay with Dixon through one more apparently tortured locution, or seemingly unending digression, we find that the work builds on what has come before, so that even those moments of irritation and tedium become essential to what makes the fiction work.
It's interesting that in almost all of his fiction, Dixon's narrator, or the main character (or both), is a writer, like he is, who splits his time between Baltimore and New York, like he does, or did, and who is married, usually to a woman with MS, who he takes care of. Many of the details change; he's not always exactly the same. But the focus is often on tedious everyday life stuff, and especially on the minutia of care, the difficulty and unpleasantness in caring for his wife (I often cringe reading this stuff, imaging Dixon's [now deceased] real-life wife reading it; and the writer character often does not come off well at all). The narrator often starts and re-starts the same bits of story, from different places, details changing with each re-telling. I. does this very effectively at times; the narrative is unstable, as if the narrator is trying out different possibilities.

In this sense, Dixon, in these books, struck me more than ever as a kind of Beckett-lite. Not in the sense of Beckett's actual increasingly spare project, but, say, the Beckett on the cusp of that project, the Beckett of Watt. (also, Dixon's prose is pedestrian by comparison with Beckett's, and all too often comes dangerously close to being outright bad). Recall, there, the passages which unfold various possible ways in which Watt may have entered Mr. Knott's house, or the sequence describing the preparation of food, and the availability of the dog, and so on—recall, that is, Beckett's apparent reluctance to "bully the reader", to insist on his story, resulting in, as Hugh Kenner put it, the "provisional nature" of the narrative. In I., as noted, Dixon considers his narrative from all possible directions, all possibilities. He won't let the reader settle on a given sequence of events. In particular I'd direct the interested reader's attention to the final chapter, "Again", by far the longest, in which we read several somewhat overlapping accounts about how I. and his future wife met. Was it at a party? Was he invited? Was she already in a wheelchair? The details shift across the chapter, never allowing us to settle into a "real" story. There is also, throughout, evidence that what we're reading is being written, perhaps a rough draft, with occasional interjections, such as "no, that's not right", or comments on word-choices. "Again" is an example of this too, and not only because of the shifting nature of the narrative. Here's how that chapter begins:
He meets her at a dinner party. Did that he doesn't know how many times. Meets her walking up a building's stoop to the party. Meets her while resting on his way up the brownstone's stairway to the party. Meets her in the apartment building's elevator going up to the party. Meets her outside the door of the party where she's taking off her snow-wet boots and changing into shoes. Meets her coming out of the one bathroom at the party which he knocked on repeatedly because he had to pee badly and thought the person inside was taking too much time. Meets her on line at the buffet table where they're both helping themselves to food. Meets her at the drink table which he followed her to so he could introduce himself.
That second sentence stands out a little (who did what how many times?) so that it seems that it's the writer writing. Perhaps the subsequent sentences are some of the many times he's attempted the meeting in writing, and so on.

Meyer focuses on the writer character's inability to write. Each chapter is a different attempt by Meyer to get moving on his writing, though distractions abound. It's an enjoyable read. Of the three novels, End of I. is by far the weakest, and most irritating. My understanding is that Dixon had expected to be writing three novels for McSweeney's (publisher of I.), who then decided they either weren't interested after the first one, or had stopped publishing fiction for a bit (that doesn't sound right, somehow, but I can't be bothered to look it up), so then he re-used some of the material for books published through Melville House (publisher of Meyer, as well as Old Friends and Phone Rings), then McSweeney's called back, wanting another book, and he cobbled together a short second volume, End of I., and it does indeed read like leftovers.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

A World That Has Always Existed

Poetry works on a different level to the novel, and goes much further. The novel accepts the everyday; it narrates it. - Henri Lefebvre, Introduction to Modernity
As part of my ongoing effort to clear out my personal library, I'm currently reading V. S. Naipaul's novel A Bend in the River. Thus far it's been an uneasy read (I've interrupted it twice to read other perfectly fine if inessential books of fiction). Where once I would have simply read the novel without complication, enjoyed the smoothness of his prose, now I'm suspicious, I feel on guard. He's a prickly character, of course, a controversial public figure, often given to making reactionary remarks. And since his books are about places in the world that I've never been to and know relatively little about, I'm wary of the world he narrates. To a large extent, I'm in a position to take his word for it, which is a big part of my unease. His novels (and travel writing, I'd imagine) seem to play a certain role in critically representing parts of the world for a Western audience, telling parts of that audience what it wants to hear about the scary other. At least that's the sense I get from reading some limited criticism about his work. I'm very wary of having Africa narrated to me in this way, and it makes me think about who such books are for.

A Bend in the River is just the third of Naipaul's books for me, after A House for Mr. Biswas and The Enigma of Arrival. The latter is one of my favorite novels, and it strikes me as nothing like the other two. In that book, the narrator is relating, with much uncertainty, those events and thoughts which ultimately resulted him becoming a writer and the person he is. It is altogether wonderful. It is writing, though it's unclear how much of a novel it really is. A House for Mr. Biswas was a kind of sprawling family drama, but perhaps since the story seems closer to Naipaul, it's not so much of a problem (though, admittedly, when I read it I was reading with somewhat different eyes; perhaps a re-read would reveal then-unnoticed issues). Salim, the narrator of A Bend in the River, is there for all sorts of observations about Africa, Africans, modernity, history, politics and political independence, education, and so on. Were the book more fanciful, I wouldn't feel as though I were having some aspect of the real world narrated to me, but it reads like a report, though a smooth one. I feel considerable less wary when Salim simply talks about himself and his own problems; the writing is more interesting in such passages, too. Already halfway through the novel, were I able to discern a plot or point, other than to represent an Africa for the reader, perhaps then I'd feel less overall unease.
Naipaul is Conrad's heir as the annalist of the destinies of empires in the moral sense: what they do to human beings. His authority as a narrator is grounded in his memory of what others have forgotten, the history of the vanquished. - The Swedish Academy, on announcing V.S. Naipaul the winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Literature
Salim's account isn't, on the surface, obviously biased one way or another. It's not as though, at least so far, the novel reads as a statement against African independence, though indeed there are complications to be considered. The Swedish Academy is not wrong to note that Naipaul is attentive, here anyway, to what colonial empires "do to human beings", or to "what others have forgotten, the history of the vanquished". That's here, and not without sympathy. It is interesting, however, that the Academy highlights "[h]is authority as a narrator" in light of this attention. As if writing should necessarily be authoritative. Again, as if a report.

I'm reminded, as I often am, of Gabriel Josipovici and his arguments about modernism. In the chapter, "It Took Talent To Lead Art That Far Astray" in his book What Ever Happened to Modernism? (my review), he discusses contemporary writers who "are concerned with telling a story and telling it in such a way as to make readers feel that they are not reading about a world that has been freshly made but about one that has always existed." One of the passages he provides happens to be from Naipaul's somewhat earlier novel, Guerrillas (1976; A Bend in the River was published in 1979). Now, to be fair, I don't think quoting individual paragraphs out of context, as Josipovici does in that chapter, is a terribly illuminating maneuver (and in the event, it proved to be part of an unfortunate distraction, for many readers, from the book's basic argument), and I will have more to say about that in another post, but the point he's trying to make is an important one, and relevant to my point here. Naipaul's Africa, in A Bend in the River, is narrated as though it has always existed, which encourages us to let it all too easily stand in for the real Africa. This is further exacerbated by the fact that Salim narrates looking back on events, from a seemingly distant, settled future. Yes, Salim observes and reports changes that have happened, but the world he narrates is there, ready, waiting for consumption.

"Enlightenment? Marvelous! But out of hand, wasn't it?"

Saul Bellow remains a divisive writer. Some are put off for good by the increasing reaction evident over time in his books. Others find his writing artless, idea-heavy, grasping for significance in its abundant references to intellectual figures, his critical popularity more a function of politics than literature. Still others would name him the exemplary American writer, the great American writer of the 20th century, modernist par excellence. For my part, I like him, though I've had my struggles at the level of the (sometimes rambling, aimless) sentence, and have written about him accordingly (see my two posts (one, two) on re-reading The Adventures of Augie March). And I find I'm interested in the reactionary strain in his writing, in the way that conservatism can be instructive, can tap into something overlooked by others, or perhaps in its willingness to lay bare a problem otherwise obscured.

All of which is preamble to the following long-ish passage from Mr. Sammler's Planet, one of Bellow's more controversial novels (I've seen it dismissed out of hand as "racist", and indeed the subplot about the crazy black man who exposes himself to Sammler on the bus is... well, it's problematic at best). The passage comes early in the novel, and Sammler is musing about his niece Angela (in whom "you confronted sensual womanhood without remission. You smelled it,  too." (!)) and the implications, as he sees them, of modern rights and demands and etc:
Sammler in his Gymnasium days once translated from Saint Augustine: "The Devil hath established his cities in the North." He thought of this often. […] Without the power of the North, its mines, its industries, the world would never have reached its astonishing modern form. And regardless of Augustine, Sammler had always loved his Northern cities, especially London, the blessings of its gloom, of coal smoke, gray rains, and the mental and human opportunities of a dark muffled environment. There one came to terms with obscurity, with low tones, one did not demand full clarity of mind or motive. But now Augustine's odd statement required a new interpretation. Listening to Angela carefully, Sammler perceived different developments. The labor of Puritanism now was ending. The dark satanic mills changing into light satanic mills. The reprobates turning into children of joy, the sexual ways of the seraglio and of the Congo bush adopted by the emancipated masses of New York, Amsterdam, London. Old Sammler with his screwy visions! He saw the increasing triumph of Enlightenment—Liberty, Fraternity, Equality, Adultery! Enlightenment, universal education, universal suffrage, the rights of the majority acknowledged by all governments, the rights of women, the rights of children, the rights of criminals, the unity of the different races affirmed, Social Security, public health, the dignity of the person, the right to justice—the struggles of three revolutionary centuries being won while the feudal bonds of Church and Family weakened and the privileges of aristocracy (without any duties) spread wide, democratized, especially the libidinous privileges, the right to be uninhibited, spontaneous, urinating, defecating, belching, coupling in all positions, tripling, quadrupling, polymorphous, noble in being natural, primitive, combining the leisure and luxurious inventiveness of Versailles with the hibiscus-covered erotic ease of Samoa. Dark romanticism now took hold. As old at least as the strange Orientalism of the Knights Templar, and since then filled up with Lady Stanhopes, Baudelaires, de Nervals, Stevensons, and Gauguins—those South-loving barbarians. Oh yes, the Templars. They had adored the Muslims. One hair from the head of a Saracen was more precious than the whole body of a Christian. Such crazy fervor! And now all the racism, all the strange erotic persuasions, the tourism and local color, the exotics of it had broken up but the mental masses, inheriting everything in a debased state, had formed an idea of the corrupting disease of being white and of the healing power of black. The dreams of nineteenth-century poets polluted the psychic atmosphere of the great boroughs and suburbs of New York. Add to this the dangerous lunging staggering crazy violence of fanatics, and the trouble was very deep. Like many people who had seen the world collapse once, Mr. Sammler entertained the possibility it might collapse twice. He did not agree with refugee friends that this doom was inevitable, but liberal beliefs did not seem capable of self-defense, and you could smell decay. You could see the suicidal impulses of civilization pushing strongly. You wondered whether this Western culture could survive universal dissemination—whether only its science and technology or administrative practices would travel, be adopted by other societies. Or whether the worst enemies of civilization might not prove to be its petted intellectuals who attacked it at its weakest moments—attacked it in the name of proletarian revolution, in the name of reason, and in the name of irrationality, in the name of visceral depth, in the name of sex, in the name of perfect instantaneous freedom. For what it amounted to was limitless demand—insatiability, refusal of the doomed creature (death being sure and final) to go away from this earth unsatisfied. A full bill of demand and complaint was therefore presented by each individual. Non-negotiable. Recognizing no scarcity of supply in any human development. Enlightenment? Marvelous! But out of hand, wasn't it?
Oh, man, there's so much! Obviously, on the surface, this reads like a cranky old-man rant about the kids and the girls and barbarians. And he comes right out and says that Enlightenment is all well and good for white folks and Western culture, but worrisome when everyone else wants in on the game. And he's focused on moral decline and sexual mores, which is hard to take too seriously. And he subsumes under the phrase "the power of the North" all the labor it exploited in the so-called South. And there are some great dog whistles in there, like "petted intellectuals" and "disease of being white and of the healing power of black" and the spectre of Muslim-lovers and so on.

And I love it. I love it for the writing, for one, for the way he moves through this paragraph, with its piled-on parallel phrases and its crazy lists and those characteristic not-quite-grammatical turns. But I also love it for its ideas, though I look at them a little upside-down from how they're no doubt intended. After all, never mind whether "this Western culture could survive universal dissemination", it cannot be universally disseminated, and its deepening and spread to date has been setting the stage for world-wide ecological collapse for decades now. But even without that immanent collapse, and here we return to a regular theme of mine, where is the labor and the energy going to come from if everyone is entitled to the modern, Western way of life? The left's critique of capitalism has, in my view, generally failed to take this into account, taking for granted the necessity and desirability of being "modern". We've bought wholesale into the culture of ever-continuing and -expanding consumption, the apolitical notion of economic growth (apolitical because placed outside of politics and all too much left-wing political thinking), all lip service to the contrary notwithstanding. Sammler is going on about morals and sexual mores, which is easy to laugh at and dismiss, but it's classic misdirection, perhaps even of himself. The real "full bill of demand and complaint . . . presented by each individual" is that of modern conveniences and air conditioning and cars and iPods and the Internet and everything else. Enlightenment? Maybe. But it's Modernity, and all the assumptions and expectations, political, economic, cultural, that's out of hand. What will we do about it? What can we do about it? Is it possible to think an inclusive polity that does not depend on unsustainable features of modern life?

Friday, May 04, 2012

Expression of a Distant Destruction

In the most recent edition of Jacobin, Curtis White has an interesting article about philanthropic foundations and their uneasy relationship with progressive movements, "The Philanthropic Complex". It's a pretty good read. The following passage appears midway through the piece:
They do not have to justify the origins of their wealth, or how they use that wealth, or what the real benefit of their largesse is.
In the end, what the foundation can be trusted to understand is not forest health, or climate change, or the imperatives of recycling; what it can be trusted to understand is the thing that gives it its privileges: its endowment.  Unfortunately, managing how the endowment is invested often leads to conflicts with the stated social purpose of the foundation.

For example, one of the emerging controversies in the world of private philanthropy is the 95-5 question.  Foundations are required to give away just 5% of their endowment each year.  The other 95% is invested.  But invested where?  Environmentalists are particularly sensitive to this question because if the money is invested in companies that continue to pollute, you have a very disturbing reality.  5% does (theoretical) good while 95% does demonstrable bad: chasing profits in the same old dirty and irresponsible way.
This issue came to a head when the Los Angeles Times concluded a long investigation into the investment practices of foundations by revealing that the Gates Foundation funded a polio vaccination clinic in Ebocha, Nigeria, in the shadow of a giant petroleum processing plant in which the Gates Foundation was invested.

The Los Angeles Times report states:
But polio is not the only threat Justice [a Nigerian child] faces. Almost since birth, he has had respiratory trouble. His neighbors call it “the cough.” People blame fumes and soot spewing from flames that tower 300 feet into the air over a nearby oil plant. It is owned by the Italian petroleum giant Eni, whose investors include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Say what you like about the need to invest wisely for the future of the foundation, but this is prima facie evidence of a deep moral conflict not just at Gates but in all of private philanthropy.  The simple fact is that most boards actually don’t know if their investments and their missions align.  When pushed on the matter, most foundations respond as Gates did:  investments are the foundation’s private concern and no business of ours.

But the problem remains, when organizations receive funding, what confidence do they have that this happy money is not itself the expression of a distant destruction?  (Perhaps your funder owns stock in British Petroleum.  Of course, for the people of Louisiana, that’s anything but distant.)  When philanthropy proceeds without acknowledging this reality, it proceeds without conscience.  It proceeds pathologically.  It destroys the thing it claims to love.  And it makes the organizations it funds complicit.
These are important points to make, and I quoted White at length here to present some of the movement of his argument, but I want to say this: there is no such thing as significant wealth that "is not itself the expression of a distant destruction". There's not! Investments and positive missions cannot ever align! Capitalism requires destruction. Accumulations of wealth, of capital, means dispossession, theft, someone somewhere getting enclosed, robbed, impoverished, maimed, killed. That's the whole game! Our continuing ability to pretend that it's possible to somehow reform into existence, or big money into existence, our allegedly desired better world is amazing.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Fiction Notes: Two Books

I somehow neglected to include in my list of incoming books Agota Kristof's excellent trilogy of novels, collected in one volume, The Notebook, The Proof, and The Third Lie. Possibly because I'd already read them before writing the post. Kristof is a Hungarian writer, of mostly plays, living in Switzerland, writing in French. The novels came to my attention by way of the list of Eastern European writers compiled earlier this year by Anthony of Time's Flow Stemmed. The Kristof recommendation came from Stephen Mitchelmore in the comments, which, as is usually the case, meant it shot up to the top of my own secret list of books to look into. The first book is a notebook ostensibly kept by twin brothers living with their unpleasant grandmother in wartime. The second is a third-person account of the life apparently led by one of the twins after the other manages to escape their occupied town. The third is a first-person account of the brother who left, after coming back to find his twin. I say "ostensibly" and "apparently" because little is as it seems. Anyway, I'm not going to review them, but I think they are remarkable novels. Simple language, though each book is slightly different given the differing modes of narration (and each book was translated into English by a different person). Worth a look.

One book that I did include on the list was Teju Cole's novel, Open City. Cole first came to my attention a few months ago via his Twitter feed, which primarily consists of "small fates": daily deaths or violences rendered as oddly literary, elliptical mini-stories suitable for the 140-character medium. They gave me pause, and seemed to fit in with my mainly leftwing timeline. Only later did I learn he'd not only written a novel but that it was up for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Awards don't mean much to me, though I confess the NBCC carries a wee bit more cachet for me than the others, for no good reason I can name. Possibly the attention they pay to William H. Gass. But anyway. In this case, it was, perhaps too easily, the comparisons to, and admitted influence of, Sebald that got my attention. Also, I wasn't sorry to have a contemporary non-white writer to look for. In the event, the book is pretty good. Our narrator, Julius, a psychiatric resident, keeps himself at a distance, as he recounts various events and interactions, including a trip to Brussels and brief sketches of his childhood in Nigeria. A disquieting read, at times, including a couple of surprises, about which we are unable to either come to any conclusion or to feel comfortable. The Sebald comparison is appropriate, without his influence being felt too heavily (happily, there are no photographs). The spectre of 9/11 hangs over it a bit, but again, not too much. I'll be looking out for any subsequent novels Cole may write in the future.

Sunday, April 01, 2012


Yes, lots of books are going out, but that doesn't mean nothing new is coming in, particularly when a birthday comes along. Mine was last week (42), and not surprisingly, I received several books, plus gift certificates to book shops.

The haul, fiction or literature-related (*=acquired w/gift certificate):

The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1941-1956
Satantango by László Krasznahorkai
Tyrant Memory* by Horacio Castellanos Moya
Open City* by Teju Cole

Non-fiction (*=ditto):

The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker's Notebook by James Boggs
The Modern World-System III: The Second Era of Great Expansion of the Capitalist World-Economy, 1730s-1840s  and  
The Modern World-System IV: Centrist Liberalism Triumphant, 1789-1914 both by Immanuel Wallerstein  
Direct Action: An Ethnography by David Graeber  
Works of Love* by Søren Kierkegaard  
Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison* by Michel Foucault

And I notice these books were all written by men. How easily my apparent default re-asserts itself! To be fair, the bookshops are not awash with books by woman authors that I'm interested in. Almost picked up Marilynne Robinson's new book of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books, and may still. Ditto Ellen Meiksins Wood's Liberty and Property, her follow-up to Citizens to Lords (which readers may recall I wrote about here), as she continues her social history of Western political thought.

I'm naturally very excited to finally have the second volume of Beckett's Letters in my grubby hands. It's enormous! The first volume, my first time reading an author's letters, was marvelous (see my post on it here; links to several other posts drawing from the volume can be found therein). Satantango will be my first Krasznahorkai novel, so I can finally see what some of the fuss has been about. Unless I foolishly acquire one of his others before reading it, like I might once have done. (I'm not going to do that.) The Moya was kind of a wildcard. I was looking for Senselessness, which had been much blogged about a while back; failing that I just wanted an interesting New Directions or Dalkey book. The shop I was in didn't have too many (fewer than they used to have, I think; but god do they have tons of NYRB Classics: and yet, somehow, none of the ones I'm interested in). Then surprisingly I noticed Tyrant Memory, so we'll see. Open City, I admit, has my attention because of the Sebald comparisons; a brief sample was inviting enough. And I like Cole's twitter feed, so there's that.

I read The American Revolution this past week (it's very short). It's good, though not nearly the great book that Revolutions and Evolutions is. I hope to have something more to say about both books in the coming weeks. I'm pleased to have the third and fourth volumes of Wallerstein's awesome Modern World-System study to hand. Though I'm eager to dive into them, I'm going to have to hold off, because I want to revisit the first two, make some useful notes, both towards a blog post or three and towards re-acquainting myself with his arguments. Suffice it to say that I find Wallerstein's theses persuasive (and the Marxist criticisms of them as unpersuasive; basically they amount to "you're not being Marxist enough", which oddly isn't terribly helpful). Direct Action is but one of a few David Graeber books on my list to read, after loving both Debt and, previously, Possibilities. This one is huge, too, and I still have yet to write anything about Debt (which I will, I hope, probably in conjunction with whatever I have to say about Wallerstein's work). So it may be a while before I dive into this one.

Works of Love crowded its way into my awareness by way of Simon Critchley's bibliographical essay at Ready Steady Book, in support of his new book Faith for the Faithless. His book looks interesting, too, but it'll have to wait. It's probably a little silly to have acquired Works of Love just now, given that I've yet to finish reading Either/Or, but I knew it had a decent chance at being available at the relevant bookshops, and so it was. And that brings us to Discipline & Punish. I'm wary of Foucault, for a variety of meta reasons, but I've actually yet to read him. I picked this one, on a whim, because I'm increasingly disgusted by our prison industrial system and wanted to see what he has to say about the origins of prison as such (I also expect to be reading more deeply into Angela Davis' writings about prison; not surprisingly, none of her books were on hand in the shops). (Note: the Foucault and the Kierkegaard books are both available in new editions from their publishers—Vintage and Harper Perennial, respectively—both of which publishers have revamped their lines of literature and philosophy, at least in the US. I only bring this up because the Harper Perennial covers are hideous; the Vintage ones are much better.) (Second note: I still have gift certificate cash to burn.) And so it goes.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Fiction Notes

I know, I know. I was going to be reading all this fiction, wasn't I? And presumably writing about it, but it's been seemingly all non-fiction all the time here at the blog. So it might seem. And yet, it turns out, of the 20 books I've read so far this year, 13 have been fiction. Though writing about it is something else entirely. So then this is something of a first-quarter round-up (which runs the risk of making it sound like I expect/plan to be doing quarterly fiction round-ups; note/reminder: no announced plans have ever come to fruition on this blog).

Anyway, here are the 13 I've read as of today, with remarks, maybe:
  • Lightning Rods, Helen DeWitt — I really enjoyed this novel, and frankly, it was just the thing I needed to get back to fiction. It's smart, not difficult. And funny, very funny. I thought the workplace satire was spot-on, and I loved the piled on clichés, some of which were just perfectly employed to comic effect. It's not the brilliant novel that The Last Samurai is (few books are); it's much more modest in scope, doesn't try to do too much, or convert its satire into an obvious message. 

  • The other day, DeWitt pointed us to the discussion at The Morning News Tournament of Books, in which her book was pitted against the latest by Julian Barnes in the quarterfinals of their ridiculous annual competition. Though it's hard to argue with Kevin Guillefoile's observation that Lightning Rods might be a difficult book to recommend in certain company ("I would have to know you really well before I would suggest that you would like this novel."), the conversation (or "meta-commentary") between him and John Warner didn't offer much (not that I expected it to), and worse, led me into reading the annoying and stupid comments that followed. Actual complaints about a lack of realism. Arguments about verisimilitude, in connection with inaccurately reported details from the book. Fun.

  • Zone, Mathias Énard (French; Charlotte Mandell, trans.) — The back copy of this novel claims it is "One of the truly original books of the decade—and written as a single, hypnotic, propulsive, physically irresistible sentence . . . " Propulsive? Yes. Hypnotic? Possibly. Occasionally. Physically irresistible? Hm, at times, OK, yes, I'll allow this. A single sentence? I've already tweeted about this to some annoyance, but it's not a single sentence. It's not even close! The novel is primarily a stream-of-consciousness sort of narrative, the thoughts and memories of a French-born Croat who's spent the previous couple of decades doing awful things, as a spy, a soldier, etc, in some of the worst wars and hot spots in Europe ("the Zone"), on his way via train to Rome, where he is supposedly to hand off a briefcase full of intelligence on countless other similar types of bad characters, some of whose stories we are treated to as he recalls their adventures, after which he is to ride off into the sunset under a stolen identity. There is not a single full stop in these parts of the novel. Where people get the idea that a sentence must have a period in order to come to an end is beyond me. This is not exactly written according to Strunk & White's guidelines. For one thing, it's divided into chapters, each of which begins what is obviously a new sentence, punctuation or no punctuation. For another, several thoughts are completed, and do not grammatically belong with the thoughts that follows them. Complete sentences! Perhaps I'm belaboring the point and no doubt you don't care. But also: there are three chapters that are from the novel our narrator takes a break from his reveries to read from. Its prose is fairly conventionally punctuated. Sentences! OK. Enough with that. The novel itself is quite good (propulsive, at times even hypnotic). I may have already mentioned this, but it reminded me a great deal of Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones, in particular the detailed descriptions of the unpleasantness of war, which we usually prefer to ignore.

  • Liquidation, Imre Kertész (Hungarian; Tim Wilkinson, trans.) — I'm sorry to have to report that I have nothing at all to say about this novel, other than I liked it, I think. It didn't leave much of an impression. It came to my attention via David Auerbach's discussion of the other Hungarian writer, László Krasznahorkai, who all of the lit blogs I follow have been talking about constantly lately; he referred to Liquidation as "stunning", so when I saw it at the library, I took a shot.

  • Stoner, John Williams — I wrote about Stoner here. To re-cap: I thought this novel was wonderful. I'd begun a second post about the novel, intended to focus on Stoner's wife, but I have as yet been unable to finish it. I make no promises that I ever will.

  • Dreaming of Dead People, Rosalind Belben — Belben is a favorite of Gabriel Josipovici's, which automatically makes her a writer I want to read. And yet I've had difficulties. Our Horses in Egypt, while at times quite lovely, nevertheless seems written with a very specific, that is to say necessarily small, audience in mind: readers familiar with horse jargon, World War I military jargon, and Edwardian slang. I am, it turns out, not one of these readers; as such, the book was at times very nearly unreadable for me. And yet, for all that, I nevertheless found the book charming (though not enough to feel I needed to keep my copy or ever read it again). I'd been assured that some of her earlier novels were likely more my speed. And, indeed, Dreaming of Dead People is frequently marvelous. The recollections or meditations of a lonely old woman, observing the world around her, and the course of her life, it is at times heart-breaking. And sexually frank, which was something of a surprise.

  • I.End of I., & Meyer, Stephen Dixon — I have a post in the works on these three Dixon novels; stay tuned.

  • Slowness, Milan Kundera (French; Linda Asher, trans.) —entertaining; not as good as The Unbearable Lightness of Being, better than Life is Elsewhere. Alternating tales of seduction, two hundred years apart. Seemingly a trifle, and not without its cloyingness, but the stuff on slowness and time and memory set it apart a bit, and help it remain in the library.

  • Mavis Belfrage, Alasdair Gray
  • Now that you're back, A.L. Kennedy — The fact that I'm lumping these two books together is a sure sign that I have next to nothing to say about them. Years ago, I traveled to London with a friend. I took with me a list of Scottish authors and titles to look for. I was in the midst of my expansive attitude toward fiction, but before the despair had set in. I think I'd read Janice Galloway's excellent Dalkey-published novel, The Trick is to Keep Breathing, and had read an interview with her in which she named several other Scottish writers. And I'd by then already acquired my copy of Gray's Lanark. So, this is where I first found James Kelman's novels, and where I got these two books, both of which, I just noticed, are story collections. I appreciate some of Gray's work (Lanark still seems worthy, as does Janine, 1982); this particular collection, as with the novel Something Leather, is mildly diverting, but ultimately slight and forgettable. Kennedy's collection is not unlike Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains in its evident skill—she's not a bad writer at all—and in my overall indifference. A couple of the stories achieved a kind of creepy dread that made them stand out from the whole (like, "A Perfect Possession"), but overall not terribly memorable. Of the six books by Gray and Kennedy mentioned in this paragraph, all will be discarded, save Lanark and Janine, 1982. I also have two other Kennedy books that I need to at least sample before deciding their fate.

  • Dogma, Lars Iyer — I wrote about Dogma here, to widespread indifference.

  • Eva's Man, Gayl Jones — I don't have a lot to say about this novel in particular, but it's made me want to revisit a long-dead post sitting in draft-mode about Jones and modernism, in connection with her novel Corrigedora, in which I'd like to include something about Eva's Man as well. In this case, the narrator is a black woman, in jail for poisoning a man. The account of the events leading to the murder is interspersed, often confusingly, with fragmented memories of various stages of her childhood and previous encounters with boys and men.

I also read several pages in books by Martin Amis, James Wilcox, and Toby Olson, as part of my plan to read and re-read books to determine whether or not I want to keep them. Wilcox and Olson don't mean a whole lot to me (they are very very different writers, incidentally; it amuses me to pair them like that, though I don't particularly care to elaborate). Wilcox's Modern Baptists is part of Harold Bloom's modern canon, and came to my attention by way of Dan Green of The Reading Experience, in a list of under-appreciated novels he posted eons ago. Count me among those who under-appreciate it. Anyway, I read it years ago, to little impact. I also along the way acquired Wilcox's novel North Gladiola. I took a few passes at reading it, and I just didn't care. Admittedly, I was being a bit rash, but given my overall indifference toward the earlier book, I just didn't see it getting more interesting for me. Then I took a long look at Modern Baptists again, too. Decided I didn't need to keep either novel. As for Toby Olson, I've previously read, and enjoyed, two of his novels: The Blond Box and The Woman From Shame. I liked them, but they weren't important to me; they're being discarded. I'd also acquired two others: Utah and The Life of Jesus. I settled onto the couch with Utah, expecting a good read, but not expecting I'd feel the need to keep it around after I was done. But I couldn't get into it. About 20 pages in, I was bored, even irritated. Where normally I'd either persevere or put it aside for later, my attitude now is: immediate discard. The Life of Jesus, on the other hand, looks just interesting and weird enough that I did put it aside for a later pass.

Which brings me to Martin Amis. I've written how Martin Amis was once one of my favorite writers, and how I'd soured on him. I've already gotten rid of most of my Amis books, but had kept back what I always think of as the big three: Money, London Fields, and The Information. Money is the one that still has the decent reputation among people I respect. London Fields was the first of his books I'd read; it was nothing like I'd ever read before, and I still have a big soft spot for it. And The Information, I'd felt, was every bit as entertaining and fascinating, even if I was confused as hell by the ending. Though my opinion of Martin Amis has shifted over the years, to the point that I now find him rather unpleasant, still I have fond memories of these three novels, and rather looked forward to re-reading them, to see if they hold up, among other things; I figured, even if they didn't hold up, they'd still be fun reads. I started with The Information, perhaps because I'd thought it was the more difficult book of the three . . . and, god, I just couldn't do it. Where I expected to find and enjoy the great prose style he's so famous for (and which I remembered), I found instead awful, turgid writing. I couldn't make it past the first ten pages! Now I look on the other two with much wariness. Will they be painful, too? Is it worth it? Wouldn't I rather keep my fond memories? Wouldn't I rather spend my time reading something else? As of this writing, I'm still undecided.