Book Review: Subjects of Desire, Judith Butler (Columbia University Press, 2012) and Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit Stephen Houlgate (Bloomsbury, 2013)
Originally published in 1987, this new edition reflects the renewal of interest in Hegel and the overcoming of the obstacle that has for so long bedevilled an appreciation of his tremendous philosophical achievement. The obstacle is the label that has attached itself to Hegel as the omnivorous philosopher of totality, the thinker who espouses the holy grail of a final and all-encompassing state that unites thought and reality. The rejection of this prevalent view is the basis for Butler’s understanding of Hegel as a philosopher of antagonism who recognises the impossibility of a grand and harmonious reconciliation between knowledge and the subject. Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit details the journey of the subject attempting to reach a point where its sought-after plenitude and knowledge of the world are at one, but this is a journey defined by its failure. The absolute is the recognition of failure and of the inherent antagonism that robs being of the oneness that it would wish to embody. The satisfaction that is sought is kept at bay by the restless play of negation.
What, though, is meant by the negative, where does it reside and why cannot the subject find a final satisfaction for desire? Reality as we understand it has to be seen as a construct in the sense that Kant propounded – shaped and given form by our conceptual apparatus — but there is no solid kernel resting in the background behind our horizon of meaning. There is only what Žižek describes as a ‘chaotic non-all proto reality’, the virtual multiplicities and proliferating pluralities that are evoked in the language of quantum physics. It is reality itself that is out-of-synch, riven with gaps and discontinuities, and its non-unity is the ultimate ground and truth behind the assertion that ‘there is no big Other’. Butler, writing two years before Žižek’s first major book in English (The Sublime Object of Desire) appeared on the scene, does not acknowledge or rely on such an ontology in her introductory chapters in Hegel but it helps in understanding why she lays out the ground in the way she does.
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Dave Lordan has a new collection of stories coming out called First Book of Frags, published by Wurm Press. You can pre-order copies here.
A book of explosive short fiction from the author of The Boy in the Ring and Invitation to a Sacrifice. First Book of Frags is a projectile flung at convention, capital, and ultimately, civilisation itself.
Some early reactions….
“A new form brings a new kind of fury. Pitched somewhere between the short story and the narrative poem, Frags delivers fragments and stark narrative incisions knitted together by a darkly satirical and formally challenging twenty-first century tone of political urgency. Frags shows up the jaded politico-economic media excursus on the recession and its discontents for the white noise that it is. Whether it is the Orwellian “Street Party”, the vitriolic David Foster Wallace-like “Living in Ikea”, the Beckettian Irish stew of “A Bone”, or the Bolanoesque “Dr. Essler’s Cocaine” the crafted howl of Frags rarely lets up. Cathleen Ni Houlihan is a scavenging Kathleen who sleeps on a “rained on mattress in the woods surrounded by empty wine bottles,” the Iron Lady has been melted down, and Ireland’s Kafkaesque educated unemployed who ponder justice have been transformed into flies, not cockroaches. Dave Lordan’s surreal yet scathing sketches of suffering, violence and ear-splitting silence should capture the hungry imagination of a disillusioned majority.” — Michael O’Sullivan
“echoes of James Joyce and Angela Carter”–Nuala Ní Chonchuir
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Book Review: London's Overthrow, China Miéville (Westbourne Press)
Moving from China Miéville’s novel Scar to his non-fictional London’s Overthrow involves a change of scale not unlike something you find in Gulliver’s Travels. In his novel, the second of the New Crobuzon trilogy though not set in that metropolis but in the superbly realized Armada, Miéville’s prodigious imagination runs riot. The science-fictional citizens of Armada, an urban-like but maritime pirate city made up of countless ships physically and politically joined together, are not the twee middle-class elves and hobbits of Lord of the Rings and nor do daft dragons feature as the baddies although there are plenty of grotesque creatures that belong to some nightmarish version of the wilder fringes of Greek mythology.
There is almost too much to contend with and you are at first overwhelmed with a surfeit of fantasy (consider skipping the first five pages and the various interludes, returning to them when you get your reading breath back) until places, people and plot begin to take fixed shape. There is an awful lot happening and the neologisms and conceptual inventions flow so thick and fast that you yearn for a glossary and a map at the back of the book. The plot builds to a metaphysical climax when Armada reaches the Scar, the ontological void that Miéville calls the wound in reality, a place where Žižek’s Real speculatively materialises itself, a realm where contingency is an absolute. There are many scars in Scar, physical and psychological, but this is the ultimate incision.
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Book Review: After Finitude, Quentin Meillassoux (Continuum, 2008) & Quentin Meillassoux, Graham Harman (Edinburgh University Press, 2011)
In a letter to Harriet Shaw Weaver in 1926, when he was working on what would become Finnegans Wake, James Joyce points towards what he is now trying to do in his writing by saying that some things cannot be expressed in ‘wideawake language cutanddry grammar and goahead plot’. Quentin Meillassoux’s style of writing, when it comes to philosophical argument at least, is decidedly pre-Wake for his book After Finitude is characterized by a lucidity and correctness that Joyce was quite capable of but nonetheless had put behind him. Meillassoux writes in a way that is not typical of Continental philosophy and what sets him apart from many of his peers perhaps helps explain why he has gained such praise for his work; for some he has already earned a place in the hallowed pantheon of ground-breaking French philosophers. A remarkable achievement for someone whose reputation is largely based on just one book, although dedicated followers of French philosophical fashion can train their truffle hounds to dig up a scattering of essays, excerpts of an unpublished text, The Divine Inexistence, and a second book, The Number and the Siren, about Mallarmé's poem Un Coup de Dés. Is the Meillassoux phenomenon just another cliquish storm in a Parisian teacup or has something explosively new appeared?
The manifest of works of continental philosophy usually indicates intellectual freight of a heavy and bulky kind and one that sometimes requires cognitive apparatus, like set theory in the case of Badiou’s Being and Event. So it comes as welcome relief to know that After Finitude, a mere 128 pages long, is one of the more reader-friendly texts of recent French philosophy and that its basic argument is put forth with crystal clarity. The book’s author is not one to wallow in words and there is an intellectual impishness to the writing that adds to its attractiveness.
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Even if The Portrait of a Lady has not been read, viewers of the rather fine Jane Campion film with Nicole Kidman — a movie mercifully free of period-drama trumpery — will be familiar with the story. An inexperienced but likeable young American woman, earnestly in love with her own liberty, journeys toEurope; there she rejects two proposals of marriage, sensing that either of them would curtail the adventure of setting out on life’s exciting odyssey. Freedom, she feels, becomes her. All very Emersonian, until in Italy she meets and pledges her soul to a man whom she thinks singularly complements her own exceptionalism; but from this high point, where she had fondly hoped they could together look down generously on the world, she falls to ground and comes to realise she has married not just a hollow and mercenary dilettante but a malevolent narcissist who demands the sacrifice of her life spirit. She had thought she was free but the sordid truth that her husband married her for her money puts paid to her imaginative idealism and she confronts the truth of her marriage and the catastrophic collapse of her American Dream.
Michael Gorra’s enjoyable account of The Portrait of a Lady is very reader-friendly given his easy-going and often personal tone, and his gloss on the novel is interspersed with a mini-biography of the writer. Gorra calls the structure of his own book ‘dialectical’, using the term loosely to capture the way he focuses on key incidents in the novel before bouncing off these moments to acquaint us with episodes in the life of James as well as the history of the novel’s publication, from its initial serialization in magazines to its first book publication in 1881 and the author’s revisions in 1906. Addressing the style of The Portrait of a Lady, Gorra contrasts its series of dramatic scenes, pregnant with meaning, with the multi-plotted, knotted style of a novelist like Dickens and in the course of Portrait of a Novel there are neat commentaries on key moments from James’s text. He draws attention, for example, to the Godless universe that comes to the fore in the scene between the dying Daniel Touchett and his son Ralph:
There are many deathbeds in Victorian fiction, some full of prayers…. Many of them show us characters sunk in fear, and others hit a high note of hope. But I have read no such scene so entirely untroubled by the hereafter as this one; its originality lies in what James feels himself free to leave out. Neither Ralph nor his father speaks of God, and they do not call a clergyman at the last.
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Book Review: Maurice Coakley, Ireland in the World Order: A History of Uneven Development (London: Pluto Press, 2012; ISBN 978-0-7453-3125-6; £17.50)
“We are not a young people with an innocent record and a scanty inheritance. We have engrossed to ourselves an altogether disproportionate share of the wealth and traffic of the world. We have got all we want from a territory, and our claim to be left in the unmolested enjoyment of vast and splendid possessions, mainly acquired by force, often seems less reasonable to others than to us.”—Winston Churchill (1914).
This remark by Churchill to his government colleagues on the outbreak of the First World illustrates part of what Marxists understand as the law of uneven development. Not all countries in the capitalist global system developed at the same pace or with the same freedom and control. Colonialism sped the development of capitalism in the colonial powers and left them in a dominant position in relation to colonies, with control over the resources required for developing capitalist production relations and technology and with a subject market for their commodities.
Even where some colonies gained independence politically, the uneven relationship remained, in both material and ideological ways, and consequently many former colonies are trapped in a neo-colonial and subservient relationship, resulting in the global capitalist order having a centre-periphery division. Not all countries are equal. But uneven development also occurred where colonialism didn’t exist, as Coakley points out; so these two situations cannot be reduced to a single one.
Slower capitalist development also occurred as a result of internal contradictions. Where an area was poor in resources or delayed in the commercialisation of agriculture or the use of technological innovation, this left it in a disadvantaged position in production and global trade.
Coakley’s contribution regarding Ireland’s development economically, politically and culturally is a unique analysis of Irish history. Many histories have been printed in recent years that emphasise the role of economic and productive forces in our development, but none has so acutely emphasised the role that our colonial past—in its effect on class, culture, and ultimately the two states that were imposed at the beginning of the last century—has had on our position in the global order.
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Book Review: The UN and Human Rights: Who Guards the Guardians? Gulglielmo Verdirame, Cambridge University Press, 2011
“One should always be aware of the risk that the distance between ‘might on the side of human rights’ and ‘human rights on the side of might may be a short one.’
The UN and Human Rights: Who Guards the Guardians? is based on the premise that UN operations around the world involving humanitarian assistance, peacekeeping, and implementations of sanctions have resulted in extensive human rights violations. Yet the UN continues to cite democracy to defend its legitimacy. The book’s author Guglielmo Verdirame quotes David Chandler; professor of International Relations at the University of Westminster and author of Bosnia: Faking Democracy After Dayton, to assert the UN’s defence of illegitimacy.
“… democracy can be taught or imposed by international bodies on the basis that some ‘cultures’ are not ‘rational’ or ‘civil’ enough to govern themselves … a transitional lack of sovereignty and the denial of self-government is necessary in certain situations.”
According to Verdirame, though the UN is bound by international human rights law and international humanitarian law, institutional concerns for liberty and accountability have faltered in certain cases due to the UN’s legal incompetence, impunity and lack of adherence to human rights standards.
The overstepping of mandates by international organizations bound to the UN has often been shielded by immunity, resulting in conquests of power granted by influential UN member states. As article 105: 1 of the UN charter states, “The Organization shall enjoy in the territory of each of its Members such privileges and immunities as are necessary for the fulfillment of its purposes.” Therefore, human rights violations have been committed by international organizations affiliated to the UN with impunity, impunity which undermines the UN’s accountability.
A historical overview of the UN shows that legislation was always influenced by social, political and economic interests, leading to international human rights discourse which lacked “moral concern” and relied heavily on international relations. Humanitarian discourse plays upon conscience in society, usually bringing about a form of political hegemony which derives its strength from exploiting divisions within a state. The hegemony within human rights discourse has impacted both theory and humanitarian practice, influencing the humanitarian agenda without emphasizing the necessity to maintain human rights.
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His Hands Were Gentle: Selected Lyrics of Victor Jara (2012) captures a spectrum of lyrics which explicitly portrays social upheaval and the struggle against injustices. Victor Jara’s poetry resonates with memory and history woven into relics of resistance and triumph, culminating into an unfinished poem narrating the decadence of the dictatorship and initiated annihilation of socialism.
Thirty nine years after his death, Victor Jara remains a symbol for the Chilean left. Joan Jara’s foreword to the book shifts between memory and exile, explaining the commitment towards imparting Victor’s legacy in the aftermath of his murder. Living a constant battle against the right wing’s coveted practice of oblivion when confronted with dictatorship atrocities, Joan reiterates that Chilean justice is hampered by secrecy and impunity.
A founding member of the nueva canción movement together with Isabel Parra, Angel Parra, Rolando Alarcon and Patricio Manns, Victor gave constant support for Salvador Allende’s Unidad Popular political campaign. Epitomised by songs such as El Pueblo Unido Jamas Sera Vencido and the ubiquitous hymn of Venceremos, Allende’s campaign amalgamated social struggle and culture into a popular movement. Nueva canción served as a medium of expression for the left wing and, following Allende’s electoral triumph, many musicians travelled abroad as ambassadors for Unidad Popular.
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By imparting a consciousness of human struggle against neoliberal violence and its ramifications, Politics of Indignation provides a discourse which seeks to disrupt the process through which citizens have become fodder for imperialist powers to consolidate a destructive political system.
Capitalism created a culture of oblivion, distorting international solidarity through globalization. The fragmenting of human rights discourse alienated the scope of internationalism, thus enabling imperialism and the media to create an imaginary platform of unity which strives to consolidate divergences, geopolitical stereotypes and control over freedom. Mayo discerns a flow of coercion which, through playing upon concepts such as citizenship, identity and the value of humanity, threatens to rupture unity within the oppressed.
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Like many families that lived around harbours, my mother’s went to sea. At least three generations of them. And most of them went to sea in Royal Navy ships. On top of that, the Great Depression, coupled with De Valera’s Economic War drove all of my mother’s siblings to England, one way or the other. The two girls went nursing. The three boys joined the navy. Four of them never came back; one went down with the Neptune in a mine-field off North Africa, three of them married and settled and were quite content to stay there, apart from holidays ‘at home’. The fifth came home to die.
This is the story of generations of working class people and poor farmers and labourers in every country of the world since the industrial revolution. I heard the same stories in Naples. In one of the opening scenes of Il Postino the actor Massimo Troisi looks in disbelief at a postcard from America, unable to accept the relative affluence of his cousins there. It could have been shot in Connemara. Recently a Nigerian taxi-driver in London described his home place in exactly the same terms that my uncles used.
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Speech given by Andy Storey at the launch of Ireland in the World Order: a History of Uneven Development by Maurice Coakley, 20th September 2012 In his novel Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad’s imperialist monster…
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A two-part review essay of Downfall: The Tommy Sheridan Story by Alan McCombes (Birlinn, Edinburgh, 2011, pps.326, £9.99) and Tommy Sheridan: From Hero To Zero by Gregor Gall (Welsh Academic Press, 2012, pps.360, £23.75). View…
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Book Review: Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (edited by Jeffrey St. Clair and Joshua Frank) In the year of Obama’s election I had a conversation with Amiri Baraka, political activist, dramatist, essayist, chronicler…
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Book Review: Edmund Spenser: A Life; Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene: A Reading Guide and The Faerie Queene in five volumes. Edmund Spenser: A Life by Andrew Hadfield (Oxford University Press, 2012) When I thought…
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