Posted by: Dan | September 1, 2007

Summer Books (July & August)

Well, I had intended to write more detailed reviews of some of the books that I read in July. Unfortunately, I have had little time for reviews (or blogging) over the last month and now I find myself at a place where August has come and gone and I am only just finishing July’s reviews. Therefore, I am posting my reading list in an incomplete state as I don’t know when I’ll have time to get to writing my “reviews” of the books I read in August. I might try to poke away at them, but if there is one book in particular that appears on August’s list that folks would like me to review, then I would be willing to do that. Anyway, these are the books that I read this summer (most of which were read in preparation for a seminar I am taking on “Christianity and Capitalism” — say what you want about “postmodern” philosophy and theory, it is still an important tool for answering the question: “What time is it?”).

July Books

1. Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration by Joseph Ratzinger.

I have already reviewed this book in some detail in a separate post (cf. http://poserorprophet.livejournal.com/117003.html) so I’ll say no more about it here.

2. Man on His Own: Essays in the Philosophy of Religion by Ernst Bloch.

This book is a collection of pieces selected from Bloch’s oeuvre. By and large, the essays were incredibly stimulating and provocative. Despite the fact that Bloch is an atheist and (gasp!) a Marxist, I think that he has an excellent grasp on some of the major themes within the biblical narrative (his reflections on the exodus, on the prophets, and on Jesus and the kingdom of God reminded my of both Walter Brueggemann and N. T. Wright) although he does seem to go wrong with Paul (i.e. he sets Paul over and against Jesus). In fact, having read their books together, I almost wonder if Bloch has a better understanding of Christianity than Ratzinger! With that in mind, let me quote from what Moltmann says in the introduction to this collection:

God’s defenders are not necessarily closer to God than God’s accusers. It is not Job’s theological friends who are justified, but Job is. In the Psalms, protest and jubilation ring out in the same voice. Wherever in history the combination ceased to work, the theologians would learn as much about God from atheists as the atheists could perhaps learn from the theologians.

3. Forget Foucault by Jean Baudrillard.

Because I think so highly of Foucault, I thought it might be worthwhile to read what some of his detractors have to say. Consequently, I thought I would pick up this piece by Baudrillard (which also includes an interview Sylvere Lotringer conducted with Baudrillard entitled “Forget Baudrillard”). To be honest, I have some rather mixed feelings about this book.

Essentially Baudrillard argues that Foucault, far from engaging in a “discourse of truth,” is actually engaging in a “mythic discourse” that simply mirrors the power Foucault describes. Furthermore, Baudrillard goes on to argue that Foucault is able to speak so compelling of power, only because power is dead. Baudrillard pushes Foucault’s thinking “over the edge” and argues that power hasn’t simply been disseminated, rather, it has completely dissolved. He then spends the bulk of this essay making the same argument in relation to what Foucault has to say about sexuality. Essentially, according to Baudrillard, Foucault’s work is “magisterial but obsolete.”

Over against Foucault, Baudrillard (at least as far as I can tell — I’ll admit that I found this essay somewhat dense) argues that it is better to think through the contemporary situation through the lenses of production and seduction. He argues that “production” should be understood not as material manufacture but as a “rendering visible” or a causing to appear (pro-ducere). “Seduction,” therefore, “withdraws something from the visible order and so runs counter to production.” Furthermore, Baudrillard understands reality as essentially fluid and devoid of meaning and so Foucault’s discourse on sex and power is then understood as a form of seduction (and the mirror of the powers Foucault assaults). Thus, because he understands reality as “the locus of simulacrum of accumulation against death,” and “no more than a stockpile of dead matter, dead bodies, and dead language,” Baudrillard argues that it is seduction that is stronger than both power and sexuality (which are caught up in illusions about the real and, consequently, fall into the realm of the imaginary).

Thus, the true secret of power, and sexuality, is that they don’t exist (indeed, the secret of the great politicians was knowing that power did not exist). Consequently, Baudrillard argues that the way to respond to power is not to resist it but to “dare” those who hold power to push it to its limit. He writes:

A challenge to power to be power, power of the sort that is total, irreversible, without scruple, and with no limit to its violence. No form of power dares to go that far… And so it is in facing this unanswerable challenge that power starts to break up.

What does Baudrillard mean by this sort of challenge? I’m not entirely sure, but I think that he means that, rather than acknowledging power and struggling with it, we should simply choose to disregard it… and in this way we force its hand. This form of action, perhaps, can be seen in the early Christians who said, “Caesar may tell us not to call Jesus ‘Lord,’ and he may threaten to kill us if we do, but we will continue to call Jesus ‘Lord,’ regardless.” In this way power was pushed to its limit, and broken up.

So, what is one to do with all this? To begin with, I don’t entirely buy Baudrillard’s critique of Foucault, rooted as it is in nihilism. If our discourse is somehow related to truth (and not simply to myth), if our concepts and structures are somehow related to reality (and are not just simulacra) then I think that Baudrillard’s case is undermined. Indeed, part of the reason why I am so attracted to Foucault is because of the way in which his discourse on power parallels what the Pauline (and deutero-Pauline) literature has to say about the Powers (cf. Walter Wink’s trilogy).

Furthermore, I think that I was being rather gracious to Baudrillard when I used the example of the early Christians to illustrate his case. Rather than leading to that sort of “radical” lifestyle, Baudrillard seems to live a life that says, “Look, none of this is worth anything anyway, so why waste your time fighting anything.” Ultimately, Baudrillard engages in philosophy because he finds it amusing. And so he lives a rather comfortable life, plays with words, and waits for death.

4. The System of Objects by Jean Baudrillard.

I found this book to be so exciting that I immediately went out and picked up two more by Baudrillard (who, in this work anyway, reminded my a great deal of both Barthes and McLuhan — indeed, unless one is not at least a little familiar with these authors, adjusting to Baudrillard’s topics of discussion may take some work).

This book, as the title suggests, is Baudrillard’s attempt to provide a “system of objects” — i.e. to classify objects the same way that we have classified flora or fauna. However, rather than simply classifying objects by their function, Baudrillard is especially concerned to provide a system of meanings, thereby exploring the process whereby people relate to objects, and the ways in which those objects impact human behaviour and relationships. “In sum,” Baudrillard argues, “the description of the system of objects cannot be divorced from a critique of that system’s practical ideology.”

Consequently, Baudrillard goes on to explore the system of objects in four ways — he explores the “functional” system, the “non-functional” system, the “metafunctional and dysfunctional” system, and the “socio-ideological” system.

In his exploration of the “functional” system (also called “objective discourse”), Baudrillard examines things like interior design, furniture arrangements and materials, colours, lighting, clocks, mirrors, wood, glass, and atmosphere. In the premodern period, Baudrillard argues that the arrangement and use of these things perpetuate a certain ideology. That is to say: “[t]he real dimension they occupy is captive to the moral dimension which it is their job to signify.” Consequently, in the modern period, with the increasing drive for “mobility, flexibility and convenience,” what we see is a form of liberation of the object, as the object is no longer required to signify old moral categories. However, Baudrillard emphasises that what is liberated is the function of the object, and not the object itself. As he says: “[Objects] are thus indeed free as functional objects — that is they have the freedom to function and… that is practically the only freedom they have.” Of course, the corollary of this is that “just so long as the object is liberated only in its function, man equally is liberated only as user of that object.” Consequently, whereas the premodern obsession was moral, the obsession today is functional. People have become “interior designers” living in a world that is no longer given; it is a world that they themselves construct.

If this is the case, if there is a technical need for design, then Baudrillard argues that the functional system is only completed when a cultural need for “atmosphere” is also considered. In particular, in his study of colours, “hot” and “cold” tones, “natural” and “cultural” wood, and other objects, Baudrillard examines the way in which atmosphere is created by a nostalgic echoing of the state of nature, resulting in a (contradictory, and therefore illusory) “naturalness.” What we end up with is “simulacrum of nature… thriving not on nature but on the Idea of Nature.” Of course, the key thing to realise is that all the values being ascribed here (from the way in which we value “warm” colours, to the way in which we value a wooden table more than a synthetic table) are all entirely abstract. Consequently, Baudrillard concludes that “the consistency here is not the natural consistency of a unified taste but the consistency of a cultural system of signs.” Therefore, “‘man the interior designer’ is always coupled with ‘man of relationship and atmosphere’, and the two together give us ‘functional man’.”

Consequently, in concluding this section, Baudrillard argues that the key thing to realise is that functionality has ceased to be about attaining a certain end or goal and is not about the ability to be integrated into an overall scheme. This leaves us with a fundamentally ambiguous system that is, one the one hand, about organization and calculation, and, on the other hand, about connotation and disavowal.

From discussing the “functional” system, Baudrillard turns to discussing the “nonfunctional” system (subjective discourse”) by focusing on “marginal objects” that seem to fall outside of the system he has just described — objects like antiques, for example. However, the central point Baudrillard makes here is that these marginal objects are not an anomaly relative to this system because “the functionality of modern objects becomes historicalness in teh case of the antique object… without this implying that the object ceases to function as a sign within the system.” Thus, the role of the antique is to signify — specifically, to signify time. Just as with “naturalness,” so also with time: history is simultaneously invoked and denied. Essentially, the antique provides the functional system with its myth of origins, for whereas the functional object is efficient, the mythical antique is fully realised — it is “authentic.” Thus, Baudrillard concludes: “Fundamentally, the imperialism that subjugates nature with technical objects and the one that domesticates cultures with antiques are one and the same.”

This signification of time and authenticity within marginal objects also explains the passion that many people have for collecting. Objects that are collected exist, not to function, but to be possessed. Such collections are endowed with the abstraction that is necessary for possession (i.e. they are abstracted from their function and brought into a direct relationship with the collecting subject). Of course, “rare” or “unique” objects are especially prized in collections and the possession of an absolutely singular object is prized because it allows to possessor to recognise herself in the object as an absolutely singular being. This is so because, Baudrillard argues, “what you really collect is always yourself.” However, this form of possession is a tempered mode of perversion: rather than apprehending the object qua object, one transforms the object into the paradigm of various other things which are then seen as referring back to the perverting subject. Ultimately, Baudrillard concludes, “the collector strives to reoconstitute a discourse that is transparent to him, a discourse whose signifiers he controls and whose reference par excellence is himself.”

Having now considered objects from the point of view of their “objective systematization” and their “subjective systematization,” Baudrillard now turns to the “metafunctional and dysfunctional” system and the issue of connotation. In particular, Baudrillard argues that technical connotation is epitomised by the notion of automatism — which grants the object, in its function, “the connotation of an absolute.” Now there is some irony here: because the degree of perfection in a machine is considered to be proportional to its automatism, functionality is increasingly sacrificed and, consequently, risking the arrest of technical advance. The reason why we are so interested in automatism relates back to the ways in which we relate to objects as images of ourselves and objects are increasingly invested with the autonomy of human consciousness, power, control, and personhood (which is why this section is subtitled, “Gadgets and Robots”). Furthermore, this pursuit of automatism explains the category of objects that Baudrillard calls “gadgets,” “gizmos,” and “thingummyjigs.” These are objects that exist without any operational value — they simply function in an automated way. Thus, functionality with this objects is not merely their function, but also their mystery, a mystery that “mystifies man by submerging him in a functional dream, but it equally well mystifies the object.” All of this, then, leads to the “superobject” of science fiction: the (metafunctional) robot. Baudrillard writes: “The robot is the symbolic microcosm of both man and the world… it simultaneously replaces both man and the world, synthesizing absolute functionality and absolute anthropomorphism.” Consequently, we can see a concomitant dysfunctionality running throughout this system of projection which refers all real conflicts to the technical sphere. It appears as though a “short circuit” has occurred wherein, automatism and projection, threaten to end any actual functionality.

This finally leads Baudrillard to reflect upon the socio-ideological system of objects, which relates to consumption. Here Baudrillard notes the use of a “model/series” scheme (wherein the privileged few enjoy the “models” and the less privileged majority consume from “series” that reference the “models”) that is not premised upon an object’s practical functionality but is premised upon the ways in which an object can be “personalized.” Through a proliferation of choices, the consumer is able to transcend the “strict necessity” of a purchase in order to be personally committed the object that is purchased. However, the elements that personalize an object are what Baudrillard calls “inessential differences” (differences in colour, in cut, etc.). Consequently, because these differences are inessential, personalization and integration end up going hand in hand, as our choosing places us squarely within the socio-economic order. This combination is “the miracle of the system” — a miracle that causes people, in their insistence on being subjects, success only be becoming objects of economic demand.

Further, these differences aren’t only inessential, they can also become parasitic as they begin to proliferate in ways that run counter to an object’s technical purpose. For example, Baudrillard mentions how objects are deliberately manufactured in order to become obsolescent. This occurs in three ways: an object can be made obsolescent because a better object replaces it (“obsolescence of function”); an object can be made obsolescent because it is designed to break down or wear out (“obsolescence of quality”); or an other object can be marketed in such a way that the previous object is no longer desirable (“obsolescence of desirability”). Consequently, Baudrillard asserts that: “In a world of (relative) affluence, the shoddiness of objects replaces the scarcity of objects as the expression of poverty.”

Baudrillard then turns to the idea of “credit” and asserts that credit causes a new system of ethics to arise. Because credit allows for the precedence of consumption over accumulation, because it allows for us to possess that which we have not earned, society is returned to a sort of complicit feudalism, wherein consumers embrace an allocation of their labour in advance to the feudal lord (the lords of credit). Hence, that which is taken as a “right” and a basic “freedom” (i.e. credit) is actually form of social colonization.

Finally, Baudrillard concludes his discourse of objects, by exploring discourse about objects — advertising. Advertising, he argues, is not only about objects, but it has, itself, become an object of consumption. Thus, although we may become better at resisting advertising in the imperative, we tend to miss this point and become more susceptible to consuming advertising in the indicative. Hence, it is our ceaseless consumption of advertising that forcibly socially conditions us. Hence Baudrillard writes that advertising ensures “the spontaneous absorption of ambient social values and the regression of the individual into the social consensus…. advertising tells you, in effect, that ‘society adapts itself totally to you, so integrate yourself totally into society’.” But this is a scam because, whereas it is only an imaginary agency that adapts to you, you adapt to an agency that is distinctly real. In this way, advertising creates a “reign of a freedom of desire,” but it is a desire that is co-opted by social controls. Therefore, the message that we are “free to be ourselves” really means that we are “free to project our desires onto commodities.”

Therefore, in his conclusion, Baudrillard provides this definition of consumption: “consumption is an active form of relationship (not only to objects, but also to the world)… consumption is the virtual totality of all objects and messages ready-constituted as a more or less coherent discourse… consumption means an activity consisting of the systematic manipulation of signs.” Hence, the reason why consumption has no limits is because it no longer has anything to do with the satisfaction of needs or with reality.

An intriguing read, no? This book certainly had my wheels turning in all sorts of different directions. It was my favourite book of the summer.

5. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowlings.

To be honest, I’m sort of glad that this series is over. A few years ago, I decided to see what the hype was about, so I picked up the first few books of this series and, because I’m rather obsessive about finishing what I start reading, I’ve stuck with Harry right until the end. All in all, I found the books to be mostly fun, but neither especially well-written (in fact, Rowling’s presentation of Harry’s character often annoyed me a great deal), nor nearly as “profound” as people seem to want to make them out to be. Unfortunately, in commenting on this final volume, several people seem to be eager to point out “Christian” themes and motifs that run through the story but I fail to see why those things should catapult a fairly average piece of children’s literature into something great. We can find Christian themes in most everything, if we look hard enough.

Granted, due to the brisk pace of the plot, I read the book rapidly (and wanted to do so) but I think that most pulp fiction is written in a similar manner. Reality television is also capable of drawing me in like this (“I just couldn’t put the book down!” and “I just couldn’t change the channel!”), but I’m not about to suggest that this makes reality television great. However, watching reality television sure is good for letting a person “space out” and have a little fun at the end of a hard day, and this, too, is what Harry Potter is good for.

Ultimately, at the end of the day, I’m a little concerned that this is what popular reading amounts to these days. Similarly, I’m a little bothered by the observation that, even for those who are given to more academic reading, this is all the fiction that a lot of them are reading these days. How about, instead of going on about the “Christian” undertones in Harry Potter, we simply start reading something else? How about Hardy, or Dostoevsky? Steinbeck, or Hugo?

So, please, have fun with Harry, but if you want substance, look elsewhere.

August Books

1. A Better Hope: Resources for a Church Confronting Capitalism, Democracy, and Postmodernity by Stanley Hauerwas.

2. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Vol 1), by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari.

3. A user’s guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Deviations from Deleuze and Guatarri by Brian Massumi.

4. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews & Other Writings, 1972-1977 by Michel Foucault (edited by Colin Gordon).

5. The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity by Slavoj Zizek.

6. Fragments: Cool Memories III, 1990-1995 by Jean Baudrillard.

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