Thursday, 30 September 2021

What I've Been Reading Recently

Six months have passed since I last did one of these. And before that it was six months as well. Ho hum. Here's the handful of titles I've got through since March.

Capital Volume 2 by Karl Marx
Bel-Ami by Guy De Maupassant
Anti-Oedipus by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari
Stigma: The Machinery of Inequality by Imogen Tyler
Orfeo by Richard Powers
Feminism, Interrupted by Lola Olufemi
The Age of Empire by Eric Hobsbawm
A Thousand Plateaus by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari
The Princess Bride by William Goldman
Tangled Up in Blue by Rowenna Davis
Imaginary Relations by Michael Sprinker

I can pin the lack of bookage on the abandonment of the old commuting routine (cheers Covid), but some weighty tomes re responsible for soaking up dozens upon dozens of hours. In his commentary on Marx's second volume, Engels lamented the lack of agitational material in its pages despite its importance and position in the analysis of capital. He wasn't wrong. Marx was a witty and acerbic writer gifted with a talent for phrase making, but most of that doesn't get a look-in here. This isn't to say the second volume is a hard book - it's certainly no harder than the first. But the lack of flourishes do make it something of a joyless experience.

Even weightier were the two volumes of Capitalism and Schizophrenia. I've never encountered two books so hard to pin down. There's just so much in them both I could only ever write about them in fragmentary ways. I found Anti-Oedipus more fun as it fizzes with the delight of two thinkers sparking off one another and who were happy to ride the rocket wherever it ended up. Its critique of psychoanalysis is utterly devastating, and despite the difficulties of the vocabulary (which is largely, but not entirely discarded in the second book) it made for a superb, exhilarating read. Like Virilio, but weightier, and with more explosions. A Thousand Plateaus is undoubtedly an advance, and is probably the heaviest thing I've ever read. Its 596 pages are densely packed and it does not let up, with each page pregnant with potential research projects and further elaboration. ATP is more difficult to talk about than Anti-Oedipus, except to say it's indispensable. Be that as it may, I do have a bone to pick with D+G and legions of their friendly commentators.

In their advice on reading the book, they argue it is composed of a series of plateaus arranged rhizomatically. The reader can dip in at any point, then jump to any point - provided the conclusion is read last. This latter commandment is certainly justified: the concluding section is a super condensed version of the preceding breeze block, but arriving there first and working backwards disrupts the potentiality for new lines of flight that come with encountering the concepts and diagrammatic expressions. However, the utility of a randomised first reading is somewhat overstated. They might have aspired to a philosophical anticipation of Choose Your Own Adventure books, but ATP conforms to the normative expectations of linear reading. I.e. Concepts introduced early on are later developed, while those hinted at and gestured toward get their elaboration in due course. Arguments unfold in an A-to-B fashion, and each chapter (which are substantial enough to be stand alone books) ends with the customary summarising paragraphs. This is just as well because a real commitment to rhizomatic (dis)ordering would have made this supremely challenging read even more of an effort. And I must confess, ATP is not just an exhaustive book, but an exhausting one. I produced 60-odd pages worth of notes from working through it, and often it left me with little energy to put fingers to keys to bash out a piece for this here site. And even then I'm not convinced I'd have got as much out of it if I hadn't spent time reading the secondary literature. The contents of these books are going to take a long time to digest, so expect them to crop up from time to time for as long as this blog lasts.

Recommended reads is Imogen Tyler's book, which I used for a summer student reading group. Frequently a tough read because of the horrors its pages describes, Stigma is a superb critique, update, and supersession of Erving Goffman's famous book of the same name. Also recommended is Lola Olufemi's introduction to contemporary feminism. It will be the core text on my gender and sexuality class in the new year because of its stress on decolonisation, intersectionality, class, and critique of white feminism. And because it's good. And Imaginary Relations deserves a shout out for its considered treatment of Althusser on the development of a materialist theory of aesthetics. Michael Sprinker notes the trouble the specificity of aesthetic practice posed those locating it as practices steeped in ideology. Does acknowledging its peculiar character concede ground to bourgeois conceptions of art, with its nonsense about auras, and the individuated brilliance of great artists? It doesn't have to (indeed, Deleuze and Guattari discuss this (with different vocab, obvs) in What is Philosophy?), and Sprinker argues Althusser's scattered remarks on matters artistic point toward a materialist theory of aesthetics. Indeed, thinking about this well over 30 years later it seems obvious that Bourdieu's work has provided the most compelling framework that fits the bill. Quite what Althusser made of him would be interesting to know.

Bringing this post to its end, one book I've read three times this year is missing from the list. And that is my own Falling Down: The Conservative Party and the Decline of Tory Britain. There's little more I need say about this, except buy it.

What have you been reading?

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Anonymous said...

Orfeo is fantastically good, as is everything by Powers I've ever read. But particularly pertinent in an age of surveillance and pandemic.

Marcuse's One Dimensional Man is worth a second look, I think; granted it's a bit facile but much of what he says seems very prophetic fifty years later.

Unfortunately most of the other stuff I've been reading has been on South African decolonisation theory, especially at universities, and that patch of missing plaster on the wall is where I bang my head after reading that stuff.

DFTM said...

If you are interested in a genuine advancement of Marx's economic theory, then Samir Amin is absolutely essential.

BCFG said...

There is some really interesting literature on Assange, but you wouldn't give a shit about that would you. You old radical you.

Dr Zoltan Jorovic said...

I finally caught up with the very sadly departed David Graeber and read Bullshit jobs and Debt: the first 5000 years. Both excellent, but Bullshit jobs is perhaps more concise and to the point and has a huge relevance to the state we are in right now.
Paint your town red, Matthew Brown and Rhian Jones
Poverty Safari Darren McGarvey
Homo Deus Yuval Harari
Reality is not what it seems Carlo Rovelli
and about to start a book from an emerging new writer titled Falling Down.

I recommend Rovelli if you want your mind well and truly blown.

Dialectician1 said...

I must give Imogen Tyler's book a butcher's. I have a real soft spot for Erving Goffman? One of the most original & insightful US sociologists.

BCFG said...

I first became aware of Rovelli on the wonderfully informative RT.

I know Niels Bohr said if you think you understand Quantum theory you really don’t, or words to that effect, but Rovelli’s ideas make more sense to me than for example, the idea that time really exists, or that God created the world in 6 days.

The idea that time travel to the past can only happen by a rearrangement of all the molecules back to a previous state makes sense, and the idea that retaining knowledge of the position of all the molecules at any moment in time is impossible, ergo travelling back in time is not possible, also makes total sense (sorry DR Who fans, but I guess TV must keep up the pretence!).

What really blows my mind is that anyone in this day and age can believe in the almighty, or believe they know the absolute truth.