Well, I was hoping that Reno might write back regarding my response to his article about “the preferential option for the poor,” since I emailed him a copy of what I wrote and invited him to dialogue. Unfortunately, he has not responded (despite the fact that my article now appears twice on the first page of google search results for “r.r. reno”). Regardless, when I did my May book reviews, I promised to do two posts before writing more reviews and those are now completed. Here, then, are the books I read in June.
1. Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist by Alexander Berkman.
In many ways, this was a a groundbreaking book when it was first published almost one hundred years ago. In it, Berkman, who was imprisoned for shooting a (literally) murderous corporate boss bent on busting the organization of labour in the United States, reveals the extent of the abuse and corruption found within American prisons while also speaking about other forbidden subjects like homosexuality within the context of prison.
Initially, Berkman isn’t a very likeable character. Because he views himself as something of a martyr and political prisoner who laid down his life for a cause on behalf of “the people,” he looks down on other criminals as leeches on society. When other labourers disagree with his actions, he wonders if they deserve the death penalty. When some speak of homosexuality, he considers such practices disgusting and inhuman. And, although he says he is acting in solidarity with the working class, when working class people wish to speak with him (like on the train when he is on the way to shoot Frick), he would rather pretend to read than have any actual interactions.
It is interesting, then, to see how his positions on all these issues change and mature during the years he spends in prison. He learns true solidarity. He learns to empathize with other inmates and realizes criminals are not the problem but that social structures (and prisons) are the problem, and he develops some truly deep feelings for other inmates (he even shocks himself to discover that he would be thrilled to have the opportunity to kiss one particular fellow). It was good to see Berkman’s character develop, although I can’t say he ends up being completely likeable… he still comes across as something of a pompous ass… the sort of fellow you don’t really want representing movements for life-giving change…
Still, I found this book to be a fascinating study and I would consider it to be recommended reading. Furthermore, lest anybody think that Berkman’s prison experience is far different than the experiences of contemporary inmates — abusive authorities, the pimping of prison workers as cheap labour for corporate interests and so on — one only need to read something like this article to recall that things aren’t much different today.
2. The State of Exception by Giorgio Agamben.
One hears a lot of talk about the notion of “the state of exception” due largely (as for as I can tell) to a resurgence of interest in the writing of Carl Schmitt. Given the ways in which it is frequently employed, I wasn’t sure how much I was going to get from this book by Agamben, but I’m very glad I read it. For some time I’ve been thinking that the next piece of writing I want to do is a more detailed study of Paul, the Law, and the anarchy of grace (continuing the trend of those who read Paul’s references to “the Law” as including reference to the Laws of society and not just some sort of Jewish religious Law) and texts like this one are very relevant.
One of the things I found interesting as I was reading this book is thinking about the ways in which anarchism differs from the Law. Of course, anarchists are in/famous for rejecting the Law but, given that the Law itself is based upon the state of exception, I was wondering if it is the anarchists who are actually the true legalists. This may be so in some ways…
Anyway, this is recommended reading.
3. Zettel by Ludwig Wittgenstein.
I should confess that I often find Wittgenstein more difficult to understand than other philosophers. Perhaps this is because I’m reading truncated pieces from journals that were never published in his lifetime, perhaps it’s because he really is harder to understand (although I wonder about that since I’m working through Being and Time write now and feel that I understand it better than this collection…), perhaps it’s because he really isn’t going on about anything all that fascinating in this text. I’m undecided. I do believe that Wittgenstein has played a significant role in my own development — in my understanding of language and in my own thoughts on meaning — but I can’t say that this particular text moved me very much.
4. The Laxdaela Saga.
Well, I continue to chip away at the Icelandic sagas. I can’t say I enjoyed this one as much as the previous ones. It felt a bit more choppy and haphazard in parts, although the last half that developed around a prophecy related to one woman and the four husbands she would have in the course of her life was pretty good. Regardless, I continue to find it fun reading literature from worlds that died a long, long time ago. It also makes me grateful for modern amenities… indoor plumbing, central heating, anesthetics, antibiotics… life ain’t so bad these days. Back in the day, those were some tough mothafuckas. Men and women (and that’s one of the things I like about the Icelandic sagas — the female characters are just as strong as the male characters).
5. A Woman Trapped in a Woman’s Body by Lauren Weedman.
I stumbled into this book one day when my wife was going through some of the thing she had in storage. I didn’t even notice the title — just picked it up and started reading (which made her ask me if I was going through “another lesbian feminist phase” when she noticed what I was reading… long story). Anyway, Weedman is highly praised as a comic — she worked on The Daily Show, a reviewer calls her the next David Sedaris only better, and so on — but I can’t say I particularly enjoyed the book. I suppose I’ve worked with too many people with personality disorders to find it funny to read about somebody who strikes me as displaying characteristics of being borderline.