Book Reviews

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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Wideawake Philosophy

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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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