Book Reviews

self_emotional_lifeT

The Conjoining of Affect with Cognition: Self and Emotional Life

, , No Comment

Book Review: SELF AND EMOTIONAL LIFE, Adrian Johnston and Catherine Malabou (Columbia University Press, 2013)

Most of us know that we don’t know ourselves as well as we like to think we do but there is a more trusting and steadfast belief in our possession of a self. In everyday life we make reference to it in a variety of ways and, notwithstanding those occasions when we catch a glimpse of an image in a mirror and wonder who that person is, filling out personal details on a form is not usually the cause of metaphysical trepidation. Besides such acts of public self-identification, we do not doubt  that our name is also a marker for a more private and defended identity that lies behind the forename and surname we answer to and surrender to others. Descartes got to the heart of it when he set about doubting everything about the world but reached a bedrock of knowledge with the certainty of his own thinking self.  From this zero-level of  self-proof a mind-body dichotomy emerged as constitutive of the conscious subject and while many philosophers after Descartes have challenged his model it is only with the advance of neuroscience that it has been seriously wounded. This is the subject matter of Self and Emotional Life, a book of two halves by two authors.

Neurobiology shows the brain, consciousness and the body’s nervous system to be interconnected in such remarkably labile ways that the metaphor of the brain as a computer, neatly processing information that reaches it via the senses, has to give way to a picture of an open organism, plastic and frangible, affective and cognitive. The brain – the emotional brain – is modelled as the site of a libidinal economy and this carries implications for any notion of a selfhood inhabiting a comfortable milieu where a subject can be in conversation with itself and its affects. Such an alluring notion is understandable; we think mostly with words after all and forms of introspection, as depicted in cartoon’s thought bubbles or in fiction’s stream-of-consciousness, can seem like engagements with our inner self.

Read Post →

ph

Photographing Absence

, , No Comment

Book Review: Phantom Home, Ahlam Shibli  (Hatje Cantz, 2013) 

The sudden and violent death of someone close to you can only intensify the grief and feeling of loss that accompanies any bereavement, so much so that looking at a picture of the person may be too unbearable to bear. The raw and unavoidable facticity of someone’s absence becomes a too-painfully presence that would be compounded by a photograph that makes the ordeal even more difficult to cope with. This is understandable and it takes an effort of imagination and empathy to comprehend another kind of response when the sudden and violent death is a public and political moment in the life of a community that is itself living with an ongoing sense of loss and deprivation. Palestinians living in their land under occupation by Israel have witnessed death at the hands of their occupiers for most of their lives and seen the destruction of their homes and crops. They live with daily indignities that prevent them from travelling on certain roads in the West Bank, they suffer from a grossly unfair allocation of water and they observe the expansion of settlements for Israeli colonizers.

Western Graveyard, Nablus, January 20, 2012 In Nablus, the families of the deceased visit the graveyards on Thursday evening or Friday morning to take care of the tombs and sit next to them in commemoration. Usually members of the same family are buried close to one each other, whether they died a martyr’s death or of natural causes.

Ahlam Shibli, a Palestinian photographer, explores the visual culture — posters, murals, banners, paintings, photographs and graffiti – of the community of Nablus as it commemorates those accorded the status of martyrs: Palestinians killed fighting Israeli forces, civilians killed in Israeli attacks and suicide bombers whose missions took them into Israel.

Read Post →

understanding_shadows_thumb

Mass Deception and the Manipulation of our Minds

, , Comment Closed

Book Review: Understanding Shadows: The Corrupt Use of Intelligence. Michael Quilligan, Clarity Press. $21.95

A convenient narrative of our times, prevalent in news media, entertainment channels such as TV and movies, and across a wide range of literature, is that the ‘intel’-led security state began in 2002 just months after a tight and cheaply funded operation by a previously little-known group brought down New York’s twin towers and killed almost 3,000 people.

This narrative, which has developed multiple strands and threads, by now woven into a fabric which goes virtually unquestioned, is false, as this book demonstrates.

Michael Quilligan’s focus is on the weapons of mass deception which elites and states use to keep us ignorant. His book is a meticulously researched and corroborated survey of how ‘intelligence’ is used to hide, distort, and bury the truth of great events, and instead implant a ‘version’, a narrative, which reflects the requirements of the rulers of the world and serves to conceal reality.

Intelligence services and their linked military, criminal, and undercover ‘assets’, do a lot of things, of which spying is perceived as the most exciting and glamorous. But they do more.

For example, they murder. The French secret service’s assassination of a Greenpeace photographer in New Zealand is an egregious example, another the almost incessant stream of doorstep killings and public executions by Israel’s Mossad. And now we have daily murder by drone and missile on the orders of a former law professor who became President of the United States, carried out from secret bunkers by agents of one or other of the plethora of intelligence agencies which have been so expanded since 9/11 as to constitute a state, an unanswerable state, within a state.

Read Post →

sz1_t

Same Same but Different

, , Comment Closed

Book Review: Event, Slavoj Žižek; The Most Sublime Hysteric, Slavoj Žižek and Hegel and the Art of NegationAndrew W. Hass 

Event, Slavoj Žižek (Penguin, 2014)

A difficulty in reading Žižek is that he often seems to be juggling with too many balls, making dizzy the reader who tries to track the course of a single idea as it speedily travels from one page to the next before somersaulting in a paragraph. The challenge is not in grasping the idea but in following it amidst the inflections and involuting digressions. The whole asymptotic shebang can become just too much and the exasperated reader is tempted to close shop on the whole act by slamming the book shut.

What makes Event easier to read and follow through from start to finish is that this time one of the balls is bigger and more brightly coloured than all the others. The reader can keep this master ball in focus, safe in the knowledge that the smaller ones circulating with it are all derivatives, examples or reduplications of the one defining conceit: Event.

Ordinarily an event is just something that happens but with an Event something is realized in a way that is extraordinary. Rust Cohle in True Detective is far from being an ordinary police officer because of how he actualizes and fully realizes, in a Platonic way, the Idea of the detective.  For Plato, everyday empirical reality is a pale shadow of the bright and substantial reality of Ideas, an originary and eternal order not to be confused with the fleeting world of appearances. DunmanusBay that I see outside a window, and every other bay that anyone ever sees, only participates in the Idea of Bay by virtue of being a surface copy. Žižek gives Platonism a twist by saying, yes, there are absolute Ideas but they realize themselves purely in appearance. Rust Cohle, in the pursuit of his investigation embodies what it authentically means to be a detective, he enacts the truth that belongs to the concept of detective and in him the Idea of detective shines in all its purity. The essence that he embodies is there, unhidden in the material reality of his behaviour. In Hegelese, the distinction between appearance and essence is inscribed within appearance – because appearance is all there is.

Read Post →

Magnum_thumb

What Planet Are You On?

, , Comment Closed

Reading Magnum: A Visual Archive of the Modern World by Geoff Dyer and Steven Hoelscher  (University of Texas Press)

City Stages by Matthew Pillsbury (Aperture)

Some of the finest poetry of Wallace Stevens expresses the constant struggle between representing things as they are, capturing moments that accord with something independent of the mind – moments, one might say, of cast-iron existence where no metaphors or tropes attach themselves to this level of material being — and, on the other hand, the alluring inclination to mediate experience with subjective positions of contestable value. In ‘The Auroras of Autumn’ he writes of ‘form gulping after formlessness’, the need to impose some order and pattern on restless, multiplex reality.

Photography is like the late poetry of Wallace Stevens in that it too battles with the conflicting drives of representing what is there, in all its necessary incongruity, and depicting a mediated slice of life that tells us more about the photographer than the photographed. When Magnum first established itself, co-founder Henri Cartier-Bresson spoke of ‘ a respect for what is going on [in the world] and a desire to transcribe it visually’. What was going on was war, first in Spain and then across Europe and the globe, and war begat Magnum with the idea amongst a small group of Left-leaning photographers in 1947 for a cooperative that would allow them to take and disseminate pictures free of control from commercial and military organizations. The experience of conflict  had brought home to the Magnum founders the importance of pictures in conveying to non-combatants what happened when  war was unleashed and two of them (Robert Capa in the First Indochina War and David Seymour in the Suez War) would die in the course of their chosen careers. Another one of the co-founders, George Rodger, gave up war photography after taking pictures at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, appalled that he treated ‘this pitiful human flotsam as it were a gigantic still-life’. What shocked Rodger was that ‘I could look at the horror of Belsen … and think only of a nice photographic composition, I knew something had happened to me and I had to stop. I said this is where I quit.’

The concentration camp, its dead and its survivors were there before Rodger’s eyes but so was his camera and when he put one up against the other something else came into play.  What Wallace Stevens said, in the same year that saw the formation of Magnum Photos, is as true of the photograph as it is of a poem: ‘What our eyes behold may well be the text of life but one’s meditations on the text and the disclosures of these meditations are no less a part of the structure of reality.’ The tension between the photographer as a reporter and as an artist lies at the core of the best work residing in the Magnum archives for as Philip Jones Griffiths put it, ‘There is no point in pressing the shutter unless you are making some caustic comment on the incongruities of life’.

Read Post →

1a

New eBook: Unmasking Austerity: Opposition and Alternatives in Europe and North America

, , Comment Closed

Unmasking Austerity: Opposition and Alternatives in Europe and North Americaby Dexter Whitfield, Spokesman Books (eBook)

Unmasking Austerity: Opposition and Alternatives in Europe and North America exposes how austerity policies have fuelled the fire of recession rather than stimulated growth. It identifies key lessons from organising and action against such policies, and urges a rethink of trade union, community and social movement strategies to overcome austerity. Unmasking Austerity examines the deeper causes of the financial crisis, and exposes the manufactured crises, which are being used to dismantle hard-earned labour rights and the welfare state.

A radical alternative strategy includes economic stimulus, reconstruction of public services, faster fundamental reform of banks and financial markets, the elimination of corporate welfare that enriches big business, and strategies to increase labour’s share of national income.

Published April 2014 – ISBN: 978 0 85124 832 5

Now available in the following eBook formats:

ePub (134 pages):  £9.99

Amazon Kindle (165 pages): £10.29

Read Post →

cata2

Catastrophism – The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth

, , Comment Closed

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.

Read Post →

thumbvg

Non-Fiction of 2013

, , Comment Closed

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.

Read Post →

1a

Fiction of the Year

, , Comment Closed

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.

Read Post →

thumb2

The Bombing War

, , Comment Closed

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.

Read Post →

Tailorof_thumb

I Have Been Reading The Tailor of Ulm by Lucio Magri

, , Comment Closed

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.

Read Post →

harv_thumb

Reaping What You Sow

, , Comment Closed

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.

Read Post →

KM_19CLi

The First Marxist

, , Comment Closed

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. 

Read Post →