Book Reviews

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Catastrophism – The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth

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Book Review: Catastrophism – The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth, Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen and James Davis (PM Press 2012)

Catastrophism is a collection of essays addressing the use of dooms day predictions in the environmental movement, the left, the right as well as in popular culture. The four chapters are authored by Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen and James Davis following conversations within the Berkeley-based Retort collective guided by Iain Boal (who led an excellent biking oral history tour in Dublin as part of the Prosperity Project in May).  This book is meant as ‘a political intervention, designed to spur debate among radicals.’ (4) I have taken this as an invitation for discussion.

Firstly, what is catastrophism? Sasha Lilley offers the following definition in the introduction:

‘Catastrophism presumes that society is headed for a collapse, whether economic, ecological, social, or spiritual. This collapse is frequently, but not always, regarded as a great cleansing, out of which a new society will be born. Catastrophists tend to believe that an ever-intensified rhetoric of disaster will awaken the masses from their long slumber—if the mechanical failure of the system does not make such struggles superfluous.’

Seeking a clearer understanding of what the writers meant by catastrophism, I listened to a podcast where Lilley explains that they are discussing an ideology around collapse and rebirth which assumes a new society will be born out of the ashes of the old. This kind of thinking, they argue, results in people waiting for the collapse rather than organising. They further claim that catastrophism is based on fear which works very differently for the right where it is mobilising, than it does for the left where it is paralysing.

Eddy Yuen begins by voicing a critique of the environmental movement. The central argument he puts forward is that the environmental movement is failing to mobilise because of its catastrophic discourse and an ‘apocalyptic narrative’ that presumes this will lead to political action. He is concerned that ‘dooms day scenarios’ don’t have a politicization effect and suggests environmentalists should find better ‘narrative strategies’.

Catastrophism, here, refers to the warning of environmental crisis. Dissemination of information, according to Yuen, does not lead to action. He claims the environmental movement has caused fear induced-apathy in the population. Yuen pins this to a deeply held conviction about politicization apparently held by environmentalists – if people have the facts they will act. While this may be the case for some, Yuen does not address the importance of understanding the dynamics of climate change and their consequences as a vital precursor to action. In the same way that knowledge of starving children in your city does not lead most people to take action, so knowledge about climate change does not necessarily lead to action. This phenomenon is not unique to the environmental movement.

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Non-Fiction of 2013

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A selection of the best non-fiction read by Seán Sheehan in 2013. Also see the best fiction he read in 2013.

 

An Armenian Sketchbook, Vasily Grossman (Maclehose Press)

Grossman  made a two-month trip to Armenia in 1961. Some accounts say he needed the money, travelling there as part of an official commission to edit an overlong novel by an Armenian writer, but he also needed to get away from Moscow where officers had arrived at his apartment and confiscated the manuscript of his great novel Life and Fate. Not only had his magnum opus been ‘arrested’, his marriage was in tatters.

He writes of how one never forgets arriving  in a foreign city for the first time, in this case Yerevan:  ‘Its autumn leaves have their own unique way of rustling; there is something special about the smell of its dust, about the way its young boys fire their catapults.’ Sometimes you worry the prose might slip into swooniness but Grossman’s  romanticism is always tempered by the real, even at his most Dylanesque –

I saw warriors, knights, thinkers, swindlers, hucksters, poets, builders, astronomers and preachers. I saw collective-farm chairmen, physicists and engineers who built bridges.

– and it sits alongside an impish sense of humour: arriving in Yerevan, he notices the washing lines with ‘sail-like brassieres of hero-mothers’ and market stalls with eighteen-inch-long radishes ‘that seemed to be belong to some phallic cult’. He is  cynical about the criticisms being unleashed against Stalin, not because they are untrue but because they are expressed by those who previously worshipped him.  Grossman can be hard-nosed but is always alive to the contradictions of existence: Armenia’s always stony landscape yielding orchards of peaches; ordinary lives afflicted with tragedies yet loyalties surviving eternal (like the wife he meets who turned up at the Siberian camp where her husband was serving nineteen years and lived in a hut outside the gulag). His travelogue ends with an Armenian wedding, a tour de force that leaves more famous literary travel writers in a dull shadow. No other writer of our times has expressed with more unsentimental admiration the nature of what it means to live with a sense of nobility.

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Fiction of the Year

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A selection of the best fiction read by Seán Sheehan in 2013.

Top Fiction of 2013

Something Like Happy, John Burnside (Jonathan Cape)

Frank O’Connor wrote how the short story is marked by ‘an intense awareness of human loneliness’ and given the unsettling mix of memory and melancholy that haunts the stories of John Burnside it is tempting to locate the genre in such a desolate landscape.  But Burnside’s canvas is larger: his writing has an acuity that goes deeper than a sense of the isolation of the individual’s existence. What F.R. Leavis said about Lawrence helps bring out more carefully the special quality of Burnside’s stories. Leavis, wanting to defend Lawrence against those who saw him as an arrogant and uncouth genius, applauded his reverence towards life. It found expression, he said, in a certain tenderness; not ‘tender-minded’ or soppy, he hastens to add, but something strong and clairvoyant and incorruptible in its preoccupation with realities of living. There is reverence in Burnside too and it exists alongside his ability to evoke the pain of just being alive, of remembering loss and the lacerations of time. This sensitivity – what Keats in ‘The Fall of Hyperion’ calls ‘the giant agony of the world’ –  verges on the morbid and risks crossing over into the unrepresentable but Burnside always keeps this side of the border; he also avoids gratuitousness.  In ‘Peach Melba’, one of the unforgettable stories in this remarkable collection, he doesn’t surrender to the gestural. Instead, he orders his language to recall with precision the narrator’s memory of someone he once worked with and had known – but only too briefly.

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The Bombing War

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Book Review: Three new books about World War II: 

The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945, Richard Overy (Allen Lane)

Year Zero: A History of 1945, Ian Buruma (Atlantic Books)

Sandakan, Paul Ham (Doubleday)

 

Richard Overy’s subject is the bombing campaigns of WWII that were not part of ground or sea operations. The rationale for these campaigns was the belief that the enemy’s capacity to continue fighting would be undermined by demoralizing non-combatants, hopefully precipitating a surrender by their rulers. The first bombings by Germany in WWII, of Warsaw, the Low Countries and France, were tactical operations in support of ground movements. The bombing of Britain that started in the summer 1940 was part of an invasion plan but by mid-September it was clear that the RAF was not defeated. The bombing continued because to do otherwise would be seen as a British victory and, anyway, Stalin had to continue believing that an invasion was about to commence while Germany planned its surprise attack on the USSR. Targets in Britain became economic ones like ports and industrial centres, with London being hit 57 nights in succession. When Germany switched to nightime raids there was no effective deterrent to these attacks, yet little of lasting importance had been achieved (though 43,000 people died).

Overy devotes a chapter to the British civilian experience, more or less confirming the commonplace view that the existential threat was accepted by the public with fortitude. Public shelters were not used as much as expected; Londoners trusted more to the Underground even though it was not official policy at first. Communist Phil Piratin led a protest group of 70 from Stepney to the Savoy and occupied the basement, where they found colour-coordinated shelters with armchairs, but he led them out again the following day.

Another chapter covers the relatively unexplored area of German bombing of Russia, reflecting what at times has become a general indifference to the mighty and hugely decisive part that the USSR played in the defeat of Hitler. In contrast to London, Moscow’s subway system was wholeheartedly utilized from the start and Stalin’s HQ was based in one part of it. Another area that benefits from Overy’s research is Italy’s role in bombing and being bombed.

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I Have Been Reading The Tailor of Ulm by Lucio Magri

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Honeymooning in 1979 on a package holiday to the Hotel Alaska, Rimini (it’s surprising how attractive the word Alaska sounds on a hot July day in Italy), I became friends with a man who ran a bar. I remember him saying to me, one day, in reply to some question I asked, ‘Sono communista io’. To make that statement as casually as he did, would really have been impossible in Ireland. In that sense, I think he was the first communist I had ever met who was completely comfortable in his skin. Communism has deep cultural and social roots in Italy even still. The singer-song-writer Giorgio Gaber puts it well in his wry, nostalgic stage monologue Qualcuno era comunista perché (A person was a communist because…):

“[Qualcuno era comunista] perché aveva bisogno di una spinta verso qualcosa di nuovo, perché sentiva la necessità di una morale diversa, perché era solo una forza, un sogno, un volo, era solo uno slancio, un desiderio di cambiare le cose, di cambiare la vita.”

“A person was a communist because he had a need for a push towards something new, because he felt the need for a different kind of morality, because it was simply a force, a dream, a flight, it was simply an impulse, a desire to change things, to change life.”

I have often asked my Italian friends who were members of or close to the Partito Comunista Italiano(PCI) what happened to the once powerful party. I have been given many explanations and I suspect for most of them the collapse of the PCI was a personal as well as a national catastrophe. This was, after all, the largest communist party outside of the Soviet Union and China. It had the great fortune to have as one of its founders one of the most important philosophers of the 20th Century, Antonio Gramsci. It had a history of struggle, particularly against fascism. It counted almost all of Italy’s intellectuals, writers and artists among its members, including, at one time or another, Italo Calvino,Pier Paolo PasoliniNatalia GinzburgCesare PaveseElsa MoranteFederico FelliniCarlo Levi,Alberto MoraviaSalvatore QuasimodoLeonardo SciasciaVittorio de Sica, the singer Fabrizio de Andre (Italy’s Jacques Brel) and the publishers Giulio Einaudi and Giangiacomo Feltrinelli and many more. It was guided by master theoretician Palmiro Togliatti (commemorated in this song). Most of all, it was the organising force behind much of the resistance during WWII and emerged from that war in position to dominate the peace.

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Reaping What You Sow

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Book Review: Harvest, by Jim Crace

The time and place of Harvest seems to be Tudor or  medieval England – seven days in the life of a community after the harvest has being brought in and celebrations begin — though one critic reckons it must be after 1850 because of some of the characters’ vocabulary. This is not carelessness on the author’s part (though it may be impishness); Jim Crace likes to equivocate in such matters and it would be a reckless reader who made a bet on the terrain or time of Continent, his first novel, with its seven different parts and a style that mildly mixes Borges with Kafka. Quarantine, his 1997 novel, is easier to pin down for it takes an episode from the Bible, Jesus’s forty days in the Judean desert, but then this could be a fictional event in the first place.

In Craceland, historicity is labile even though one can often make a reasonable guess as to time and place. All That Follows (2010) is recognisably located in a Britain of the near future and there is no doubting that Harvest takes its context from a real historical movement, one arising from the intersection of economic plate tectonics: an old-world, pre-capitalist order coming up against a new mercantile domain where profit and loss calculations take precedence.

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The First Marxist

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Book Review: Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, Jonathan Sperber (Norton, 2013)

It seems like good news when a new book about Marx is not a hatchet job, is widely reviewed (though not, of course, in Ireland) and receives fairly universal acclaim in the mainstream press. Mind you, another biography of Marx that appeared in 1999 was also praised at the time and few seemed to be offended by the tone of its author, Francis Wheen. Wheen’s style, writing, for example, how Marx had little regard for his mother ‘except when he was trying to wheedle money out of the old girl’, revealed a supercilious, platitudinous attitude towards its subject, as if a book about Marx had to be presented as a jolly wheeze in case anyone thought he might be taking the ideas of the author of The Communist Manifesto just a tad too seriously.

It comes as a relief to find that Jonathan Sperber does not write like Wheen, that he approaches his subject with scholarly seriousness and presents Marx’s life in elegant and scrupulous prose. He successfully communicates a sense of Marx as a restless, erudite intellectual, fired-up by the limitations of others and hugely learned in a way that contemporary academia would have difficulty in coping with. This in itself would not have been a problem for a German university in the nineteenth century but the young Marx burnt that bridge when he crossed over into Young Hegelian territory and identified himself as a caustic opponent of the ultra conservative Prussian order. Until then, his prospects were sunny. Born 1818 inTrier, a southwestern German town that had been annexed to the French republic during the Revolution, he was the son of a Jewish lawyer who pragmatically adopted Protestantism but never abandoned his adoption of Enlightenment thought. Sperber is adept at explaining the obstacles faced by Heinrich Marx and the pressure he would have faced to assimilate. For many in his position, Catholicism would have been the religion of choice for conversion but Heinrich was an heir to the Enlightenment and this explains choice of denomination. 

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Paranoia With A Plan

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Book Review: First Book of Frags by Dave Lordan (Wurm Press, Portarlington, 2013)

 

Dave Lordan announced his uncompromising presence with his first collection ‘The Boy In the Ring. The title poem is emblematic of so much of our recent history. In that brief lyric, Lordan invents or recalls the visceral experience of being the centre of a ring of violence. The boy in the ring is a child in an industrial school, a child in a court, a child in a schoolyard, a child on the street. Whoever he is, he is in great danger, and yet he is not simply a victim. The poem concludes with the unanswered/unanswerable question ‘When will the boy get out of the ring?’

Lordan’s work escapes from all the rings, including the literary traps of form and content. He is always a political poet, always challenging, both as a riveting reader of his own work and in print, so it was with great interest that I opened his first collection of prose.

The title has intrigued me for some time. ‘Fragging’ was the Vietnam War practice of dropping an occasional hand-grenade into the back-pack of an unpleasant officer. And these short fictions are hand-grenades. As the narrator in ‘Christmas Cracker’ says, ‘Tenderness and all that shite is for hypocrites and mealy-mouthed muffin-heads.’ And tenderness there is none in this collection. It seems deliberately set up to take the piss out of all the careful conventions of what we call Irish literature. There isn’t a simple chronological narrative with a sympathetic character and a redemptive ending in the whole thing. What there is a knapsack full of verbal hand-grenades and characters that would stand your hair on end.

‘Dr Essler’s Cocaine’ conjures a fascist orgy somewhere in the (future or present?) west of Ireland in which Lordan has the narrator tell us that ‘The Irishman does not care what his masters get up to as long as he is allowed to get drunk and lash out at his own.’ In another fiction, almost a poem, a series of complex statements about a character called Kathleen is clearly a meditation on the complexity of the feminine image of Ireland beloved of nationalists: ‘We must behave as if the dead are watching and waiting to receive us, or else we are lost. It all comes down to the dead, says Kathleen.’

‘A Bill’ posits an Ireland where transport has declined and the world has grown bigger so that what was once a nearby town is now distant, a place to journey to, and which is famous for its suicides in the same way that Knock is famous for its miracles. The story is about the media and counseling industry that develops around suicides and clusters of suicides, and about managerialism and capitalism’s desire to exploit every human action.

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‘Self-Hating Jews’, ‘Ideological Criminals of the Worst Kind’

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Book Review of three recent books by Jewish writers, Shlomo Sand, Jacqueline Rose and Judith Butler on Israel.

Ideological Criminals

This rose is red

Red is a colour

Therefore this rose is coloured

There is an initial plausibility to such syllogizing but Hegel uses this example to show where such thinking goes awry. It associates a universal (red) with a particular (rose) but, because different universals can be associated with a particular, the form of inference being employed here allows for more than one conclusion to be drawn. Red can also be a representation of communism or, as the crowds recently celebrating Alex Ferguson demonstrated, of Manchester United but we cannot infer that this rose is communist or a Manchester United rose. A plurality of conclusions can be drawn, though, because the presence of one universal does not preclude the possibility of there being others. The rose is not just red. It has a certain aroma, shape and so on but these various features do not have any necessary connection to one another.

A similar kind of understanding applies to the kind of dodgy syllogizing that goes along the lines of:

Hostility towards Jews is anti-Semitism

Israel is a Jewish state

Therefore hostility towards Israel is anti-Semitic

It might be thought to be a problem when Jews are hostile to Israel because an anti-Semitic Jew sounds a little odd – but, no, this is not a problem because they are just self-hating Jews and as such they deserve a place on the Jewish S.H.I.T. list (‘Self-Hating and/or Israeli-Threatening’). Not surprising, then, to find Shlomo Sand, Jacqueline Rose and Judith Butler on this list.

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Book Review: Social Work and Social Theory- Making Connections by Paul Michael Garrett

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Book Review: Social Work and Social Theory- Making Connections by Paul Michael Garrett (Polity Press, 2013)

At the outset of this text Garrett outlines his view that there is a frequently unrecognised value in applying social theory to social worker’s day-to-day education and practice. In this book, he makes the case that theoretical engagement can help social workers to navigate those “indeterminate zones of practice” (p.1). Garrett notes in his introduction that social work is often seen and represented as a practical, common sense profession- an ideal activity for “retired City bankers and ex-insurance brokers” as Garrett notes, quoting a UK government official (p.2). The reality is, of course, far more complex than this and Garrett positions himself in opposition to the harmful, yet enduring, belief that social work is, or indeed can be, “theory-less”

The book concentrates on critical social theory developed in Europe by contemporary thinkers and attempts to highlight where these theoretical positions and social work may meet, intersect and be beneficial to social work. At the outset of the book, Garrett explains two theoretical omissions from the text. The first of these being the work of Michel Foucault which he explains by way of noting that much has already been written linking Foucault’s work to social work. Furthermore, Foucauldian theory is thought to a greater or lesser extent on many post-graduate social work courses and I felt the omission could be justified. The second omission which Garrett addresses is around feminist theorists. Garrett acknowledges the absence of feminist theory in the text but states that the book itself is informed by a feminist analysis.

Garrett’s first chapter proper is focussed on the questioning theories of modernisation. He begins by questioning what happened to post-modernity, and its relationship to social work education. Garrett makes two important claims- firstly, that social work academia came to postmodernist thought much later than other disciplines and secondly, that the social work academy’s short engagement with postmodernist theorisation did not impact upon the day-to-day practice of social work professionals primarily because of the complex, sometimes impenetrable language of postmodernist theorisation. However, Garrett does acknowledge that the postmodernist turn in social work and the “blurring of boundaries between professionals” (p.23) along with the move toward actuarialism in social work did change how services were delivered. In line with this shift toward counting, and drawing on the work of Fredric Jameson (2000), Garrett argues that “a new kind of superficiality” (Jameson, 2000:196, quoted by Garrett) evident in late-capitalism was mirrored in the development of one-size fits all social work “tools” which have become increasingly prevalent, particularly in child protection and probation practice.

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Desiring Hegel

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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’s New Short Story Collection: First Book of Frags

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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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The Rest Of You Are Just Visiting

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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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