Posted by: Dan | December 14, 2009

November Books

Late as usual (but also longer than usual):

1. First as Tragedy, Then as Farce by Slavoj Žižek .

In this book, Žižek explores the collapse of capitalist liberal democracy first in the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001 and then in the farcical events of the global financial meltdown in 2008 (Sept. 11 is only mentioned in passing and the economic events of 2008 remain the enduring focus).  In exploring these events, Žižek also points to the Left’s failure to exploit the situation in order to create an alternative and so — instead of supporting the views of those like Klein or Hardt and Negri — Žižek proposes a return to communism with its concomitant exercise of force (here wielded primarily in solidarity with those who are excluded and assigned to ‘the place of no place’ within global capitalism).

As with most things Žižek is writing these days, I found this book to be both enlightening and entertaining.  I particularly enjoyed his (ongoing) exposition of propaganda, fetishism, and ideology and remain convinced that this is the sort of argument that any ‘person of faith’ should employ in order to think about his or her own belief system.  I also enjoyed Žižek ‘s focus upon the centrality of those who are excluded, a thought that he as continued to develop since In Defense of Lost Causes, and a thought that has many parallels in liberation theology.  More off topic maybe, but I also enjoy that way in which he (and Badiou) write about ‘the Event’, as I think that this is an almost perfect description of Pauline apocalypticism.  My only main objection to this book is that Žižek ends up leaving his form of communism as rather vague and undefined (in this regard, he reminds me of Hauerwas’ writings about the Church — it’s all very beautiful and inspiring but when you look for where the rubber hits the road you end up a little confused and a little disappointed).  So, yep, recommended reading.

2. Hatred of Democracy by Jacques Rancière.

In this short book, Rancière explores the ways in which modern Western, or parliamentary, democracies are actually sustained by very anti-democratic beliefs and practices.  Thus, members of the ruling class are motivated by a very deep hatred of democracy, for it is genuine democracy that challenges their so-called right to rule.  Or, as Rancière puts it, from the perspective of the ruling class “there is only one good democracy, the one that represses the catastrophe of democratic civilization”.

Genuine democracy, then, is one that refuses to privilege any group of people with some sort of preordained right to rule (whether through wealth, or familial connections, or title, or whatever else).  It is hear that Rancière looks back (with admiration) to some of the Greek poleis that Plato criticized.  Here, representatives of the people were selected through the drawing of lots.  Rancière comments:

If the drawing of lots appears to our ‘democracies’ to be contrary to every serious principle for selecting governors, this is because we have forgotten what democracy meant and what type of ‘nature’ it aimed at countering… the drawing of lots was the remedy to any evil at once much more serious and much more probable than a government full of incompetents: government comprised of a certain competence, that of individuals skilled at taking power through cunning… good government is the government of those who do not desire to govern.

Thus, what democracy means when it speaks of “the power of the people” is “not that of the people gathered together, of the majority, or of the working class”; rather, it is the power of “any one at all” to govern and to be governed.

Personally, having spent a lot of time thinking about how to organize within a particular community of people (and having had many negative experiences of the practice of power, representation, and leadership in a multitude of communities), I find this thesis to be quite fascinating and compelling.  I wonder what would happen if we started organizing ourselves based upon this principle?

3. Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger.

Originally published as two separate but connected stories, Franny and Zooey tells the story of two siblings coming of age and negotiating the space between a messed-up world that is not as it should be and the hubris that comes with being raised with intelligence, taste, and privilege.  Mostly it consists of three prolonged conversations (the first between Franny and her boyfriend, the second between Zooey and their mother, and the third between Franny and Zooey), and it builds to a great conclusion.  In fact, I got goosebumps on the final page and a half, and I can’t remember the last time the climax of a novel did that to me.  Recommended reading.

4. Gertrude by Hermann Hesse.

My wife owns a whole bunch of Hesse novels and I’ve kind of poked away at them over the years.  I remember not being too impressed with Siddhartha, but Narcissus and Goldmund was fabulous.  Anyway, on a whim, I pulled this book off the shelf and opened to the first paragraph:

When I consider my life objectively, it does not seem particularly happy.  Yet I cannot really call it unhappy, despite all my mistakes.  After all, it is quite foolish to talk about happiness and unhappiness, for it seems to me that I would not exchange the unhappiest days of my life for all the happy ones.

Wow.  After reading that I was hooked and quickly read through what turned out to be a story of unrequited love (it has been awhile since I read one of those).  Of course it is also more than that and deals with the ways in which we unintentionally harm the people around us and with other themes like maturity, sacrifice and humility (another quote: “Youth ends when egotism does; maturity begins when one lives for others”).

Then again, this book also got me thinking about the theme of unrequited love and the cultural shift that seems to have occurred in this regard.  Once upon a time, this was a dominant theme amongst ‘people of culture’ (just to name a few, think of the way it shows up in literature from Hugo’s Hunchback, to Leroux’s Phantom, to Rostand’s Cyrano, to Goethe’s young Werther).  However, in our contemporary context, it seems like the theme of unrequited love belongs almost exclusively to teenage pop culture (the Twilight Series being the most recent blockbuster to exploit this theme).

So how is it, I wonder, that the theme of unrequited love has moved from being a favourite topic amongst the cultural elite, to being a favourite topic in one of the most looked-down-upon pop cultures of our day?  I’d be curious to hear any theories that people might have about this.  Personally, I wonder if it is because we have given up on love and have ceased to believe in it the way in which people once did.  Indeed, it is almost as though giving up on love becomes part of the rites of passage that we face as we move from childhood to maturity.  Instead of seeing love — including unrequited love — as inherently worthwhile, noble, and beautiful, we learn to temper our views with cynicism, pragmatism, and the desire to avoid any pain or loss.

Anyway, all this is rather tangential to the book at hand.  Recommended reading.

5. Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller.

I have been thinking about this book for the last several months even though I haven’t read it since highschool.  Basically, I kept coming back to Biff’s final confrontation with his father:

Biff: Pop!  I’m a dime a dozen, and so are you! … I am not a leader of men, Willy, and neither are you.  You were never anything but a hard-working drummer who landed in the ash can like the rest of them!  I’m one dollar an hour, illy!  I tried seven states and couldn’t raise it.  A buck an hour!  Do you gather my meaning?  I’m not bringing home any prizes any more, and you’re going to stop waiting for me to bring them home! … Pop, I’m nothing!  I’m nothing, Pop.  Can’t you understand that?  There’s no spite in it any more.  I’m just what I am, that’s all.

Basically, I went back and read this play because I’ve been trying to internalize that message — to be able to confront my own insignificance and failures but to do so without any spite.  It is a difficult line to walk.  On the one hand, I am filled with a longing to see something more in life — to see new life, new creation, new love bloom in places of death, destruction and despair — but, on the other hand, I have also seen how my efforts to pursue those things have ended up harming others and leaving me constantly disappointed.

There is a quote from Rilke that a friend of mine taught me some time ago: “I’m afraid if my demons leave me, my angels will take flight as well”.  When he said this, Rilke was talking about why he rejected (Freudian) psychotherapy, but I’ve always understood this quote as pointing to more than that — as fitting well with what Paul says about power being perfected in weakness and with what Jesus says about losing life to find it.  Perhaps both our brightest and our darkest aspects are two indivisible sides of the same coin.

But if that’s the case, then one wonders if we need to throw away the coin.  In fact, it seems to me that this is exactly what most people do — they give up both their hope and despair to live in the now; they give up both their love and their hate to live with indifference; they give up both their angels and demons to get through their bullshit 9-5 jobs.  This is how people learn to survive this gong-show that we call life.  Me, I’ve been clinging to my hope and despair, my love and my hate, and my angels and demons… but I don’t know how sustainable that is anymore.

Anyway, this is also tangential to the book at hand, but these are the things I getting thinking about when I read.  I recommend this play (also, in light of this tangent, it is interesting to note how it is the final in-breaking of love, into the life of Willy, that leads to his ultimate act of self-destruction — Willy can only survive as long as he does not know that his son loves him).

6. Prints and Drawings of Käthe Kollwitz selected and introduced by Carl Zigrosser.

As I’ve stated before, I’ve never connected much with the visual arts.  This is partly why I’ve been so stunned by the works of Kollwitz — they caught me completely off guard and struck me speechless.  I honestly don’t know how to describe her work, but I very much enjoyed (if that’s the right word) this book of prints and drawings, as well as the essay providing background information on Kollwitz herself.  So, instead of trying to describe the art, I’ll just link to a few examples:  Death and Woman, Poverty, Woman with her Dead Child, and Sleeping Mother with Child.

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Responses

  1. I have ordered the Zizek book to read over the holiday period. However, it’s the Ranciere book that interests me, I have almost purchased it a couple of times (the Verso series is generally great, plus, it is in this series that I came across Mouffe’s The Return of the Political which is one of my alltime favourite books).

    If I’m reading your summary to what exent is the Jury the image of a properly operating democracy it seems to be the nearest analogy I can think of, both open to all and a democracy deliberative in operation – although, even here there is a case of the pool of jurers being limited (i.e., non-nationals and in the UK at least prisoners being excluded).

    Thanks for the review.

  2. Dan. This is a fair critique of Žižek’s book. Thanks for posting these each month (or so).

  3. I got the examiner’s copy of my thesis back. He’s an old scholl liberal near retirement. Besides the quotes by Mouffe and Ranciere he wrote: “crazy!”, “creepy argument!” and “no way!”. I should frame the stuff.

  4. It’s been a while since I dropped in and gave you my two cents of complaints. I used to be put off with your broad critique’s of “N.American (or Western) Christianity” which I thought were nothing but reflections of stages in your developmental psychology. You were still a twentysomething student, unmarried, no children, no “bullshit job”, no mortgage, but you were cocksure about authentic spirituality and everyone’s lack of it (since they didn’t live up to the ideal you were about to whip out on the world, straight from Acts and Calcutta).

    It is nice (not in the schadenfreude sense) to see the critique has become less expansive, less confident, and more turned inward, like in the DofS review. I know this doesn’t mean you agree with me or with the dominant mode of “western Christendom” since you still regard them as “indifferent”. But I hope as your sympathy grows (as it obviously must be) for people in your predicament, you will find a spirituality in the “indifference” and perhaps find that even bourgeois spirituality isn’t all tokens and cynicism. There is yet more to learn. Peace.

  5. I’ve just finished Zizek yesterday. Personally after making a lot of progress with Violence I felt this was something of a step back and feel less confident really knowing what he’s getting at. That said, the first half, namely the more focused analysis of capitalism as ideology did have its good moments.


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