Posted by: Dan | February 15, 2008

January Books (better late than never?)

1. Spirit and the Politics of Disablement by Sharon V. Betcher.

Having happily stumbled into this nexus between liberation theology and disability theory at some point last year (when I read The Disabled God by Nancy Eiesland), I was eager to read what somebody else had to say on this subject. Thus, when I stumbled across Betcher’s book (who, like Eiesland, also writes on this topic as one who has been classified as ‘disabled’) I quickly worked my way through it.

What I think I have learned from those like Betcher and Eiesland is that disability is almost entirely due to social barriers and the biopolitics of capitalism which pushes various standards of normalcy and employability upon us. Thus, Betcher argues that, rather than seeing disability as a loss, or something to be overcome, disability can then become a place that provides us with a powerful alternative to, and critique of, empire and its “ideologies of normalcy”.

Now, all that is well and good, and Betcher does an excellent job of thinking through these things alongside of folks like Foucault, Deleuze, Hardt, and Negri. However, there was much about this book that I found to be frustrating. Particularly, I found her all-out rejection of the healing narratives, as well as Jesus’ resurrection, to be especially troubling — not only because of my own convictions, but because I think she is cutting her own legs out from under herself by arguing in this way. Betcher is opposed to these things because she thinks healing stories, including the story of the resurrection, have been used to support empire’s biopolitics — and there is certainly a great deal of truth in this. However, such stories can be used in other ways. For example, unlike Betcher, who wishes to discard the notions of healing and resurrection altogether, I would argue that all of us are awaiting the transformation of our bodies and, in this regard, both those who are temporarily disabled and those who are temporarily able bodied, are united in awaiting the new creation of all things — including themselves.

Additionally, Betcher appears to focus her argument solely upon those who have physical disabilities. However, when one factors in those with mental disabilities, perhaps we should not be so quick to discard all stories that point to transformation or, dare I say, healing. Granted, whether a person has one leg or two may be entirely irrelevant, but when a person regularly hears voices that tells him to kill himself (I know more than one person who has lived with these voices) then I think we shouldn’t be so hasty to say that all talk of transformation or healing is supporting the biopolitics of empire.

Finally, it is worth noting that Betcher is writing out of a rather ‘liberal’ theological tradition. As such, she appears to exhibit some religious syncretism, some discomfort with ‘orthodox’ Christianity, and I really can’t tell what the difference might be between her religious position and the dominant spirituality of Vancouver more broadly (she teaches at a theology school in Vancouver, but not at the one I attend).

2. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism by Fredric Jameson.

I’m not entirely sure how to summarise this book as Jameson covers a lot of ground, a lot of sources, and a lot of topics in its 400 pages. Essentially, I think that Jameson is continuing to demonstrate the truth found in the Marxist thesis that it is the mode of production (the base) which is responsible for the shape a culture takes (the superstructure). Hence, he demonstrates how postmodernism — in various media and disciplines, from architecture, to alternative film, to theory, to economics — is an outworking of late capitalism — capitalism in its present form, which if focused upon commodification and the (recycling of) image. One of the major consequences of this is the loss of the historical, and it is the recovery of history (again, an important element of Marxism) that Jameson seems to especially desire.

Of course, there is much more that should be said about this book, it really is an exceptional study of modernism, postmodernism, and the thread that capitalism draws between the two as it develops out of one and into the other. My only complaint would be that I wished Jameson would be a little less anecdotal and cut to the chase more often — but, then again, given that Jameson is attempting to demonstrate cultural shifts, perhaps examples are necessary… it’s just that I don’t get too excited reading about alternative films being produced in the ’70s.

3. Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre.

This was my first time reading Sartre, and I enjoyed it a great deal. It seems to me that Sartre, like Wittgenstein, must be one of the central precursors to postmodernism (again, a sense of history helps remind us that there are very few ‘clean breaks’ between eras). In this novel, Sartre explores questions about history, epistemology, meaning and subjectivity. I don’t know what it is about the French but they are damn good at writing philosophy in a narrative form. I wish more people would do that.

4. Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett.

Well, I finally got around to reading this little play last month. I’ve never been a fan of reading plays — they are, after all, made for performing and viewing (which, by the way, was part of the reason why I have always thought that it was totally nuts that highschool students are made to read Shakespeare, year after year). To be honest, I’m still sitting on the fence with this one. I think I would like to go to see it before I make up my mind. Initially, I was rather unimpressed but, as I have continued to reflect on it, it has grown on me more and more. Not bad for a play wherein nothing happens!

5. Allah is Not Obliged by Ahmadou Kourouma

This is a book about child soldiers, written by a celebrated French African author. It’s damn good, but terribly depressing. Faforo! Gnamokode!

Sometimes I wonder why I keep reading about all these terribly depressing things. To put it simply, the world is fucked, and the more I learn about it, the more I learn about the depth of this brokenness, the more I feel like I’ve opened Pandora’s box and don’t know how to respond to everything that came flying out. On the one hand, I think we must educate ourselves about how fucked everything is but, on the other hand, I’m not sure what to do with that knowledge. Faforo! Gnamokode!

6. Introduction to Bhagavad-Gita by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.

This little book (really a fifty-page tract) was some fun reading. It was a nice refresher for me, as it has been awhile since I’ve read anything in relation to Hinduism, and it was fun to observe similarities with postmodern thought (take, for example, the ‘death of the subject’) and with Christianity (take, for example, Prbhupada’s argument that true knowledge of the Bhagavad-Gita comes only to those who are devotees in direct relationship with the Lord — I think Tom Wright says almost exactly the same thing about an epistemology of love in Surprised by Hope. Or, as another example, take Prbhupada’s emphasis upon tracing truth through discipilic succession, a point that should have our Roman Catholic friends nodding their heads!). Of course, at the end of the day, Hinduism, postmodern philosophy, and Christianity are often miles apart from each other, but that doesn’t mean there is no room for fruitful dialogue.

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