Posted by: Dan | December 15, 2012

Books of 2012 (Part 1/3)

Usually, I post reviews of the books I have read each month on the month in which I read them, but this year I got a bit behind, then a lot behind… by the time I actually started writing the reviews, I kept adding more to the list before I finished reviewing what I had already read.  So, the end result of this was that all my book reviews got bumped to the end of the year.  That means that my already too short, too personal, and too idiosyncratic reviews may be even worse than usual.  I’m okay with that.  I was originally planning on organizing these into categories (philosophy, fiction, history, etc.) but have just decided to post them as I complete them.  Here is part one.

1. Empire in the New Testament ed. by Stanley Porter and Cynthia Long Westfall.

Many thanks to Christian at Wipf and Stock for this review copy.

This collection of essays comes out of a conference that was at MacMaster Divinity School.  The first two essays lay some of the foundation for an imperially-nuanced reading of the New Testament by looking at matters related to empire in the Davidic literature and in Isaiah.  We then have three essays dealing with material from the Gospels, two essays dealing with the Pauline and deutero-Pauline material, one essay dealing with the non-Pauline epistles, and one concluding essay looking at the ways in which the Church Fathers interacted with the traditions they inherited (from both the Jesus Movement and the Roman Empire).  Notably absent from any of this is any comment on Acts.  I found this disappointing as I think some of the most exciting work has yet to be done in relation to Acts.  Pair that with the observation that some of the essays collected here were a much higher quality than others (I found the essay on Isaiah to be repetitive and dull and the essay by Warren Carter was essentially restating things he has written elsewhere) so this felt like a missed opportunity to me.

For the sake of brevity, I would like to single out two essays: Tom Thatcher’s piece about Jesus’ crucifixion as it is presented in John’s Gospel and Gord Heath’s article about the Church Fathers and their relation to the Roman Empire (aside: about ten years ago I played in a floor hockey tournament with Gord Heath; we used to call him “short shorts” because of the clothes he wore during games).

I want to begin with the Thatcher essay because I think it was one of the strongest in this collection (maybe actually the strongest).  What he does is engage in a reading of the crucifixion of Jesus that draws attention to the ways in which crucifixion functioned within the ideology of Roman imperialism.  Crucifixion enacts a certain kind of drama that communicates a certain kind of message — about the gods, about Rome, about conquered peoples, about justice and salvation — and Thatcher spends a fair bit of time drawing this out.  He does this very well (Brigitte Kahl does something similar in Galatians Re-Imagined, so it’s good to see this kind of reading gaining some traction — it is very compelling).  Thatcher then argues that the Gospel of John recasts the crucifixion of Jesus so as to create what Foucault has called a “countermemory” in order to still affirm the ideological importance of this crucifixion — along with the whole cluster of themes related to it — but in subversive manner that reveals a surprising reversal: the crucifixion of Jesus reveals God’s conquest of the Roman Empire.  I really recommend this essay.  I think the perspective being provided by people like Thatcher and Kahl is crucial for understanding the cross of Jesus and, I dare say, the development of a Christian soteriology.

Gord Heath’s article deserves comment because it strikes me as a good example scholarship that is intelligent but shockingly acritical.  A good deal of conservative or reformist scholarship seems to exhibit these seemingly contradictory traits — on the one hand you have somebody who is obviously intelligent and capable of scholarly work but, on the other hand, the same person seems to be unable to step back from the material and has the most basic critical questions.  In relation to Heath’s essay this plays out in the following ways:

Heath spends a fair bit of time highlighting and developing the complexities related to the ways in which various Church Fathers interacted with the Roman Empire in light of the traditions they had inherited from the New Testament and the early Jesus Movement.  His emphasis tended to fall on those voices that were more sympathetic to the empire (compare this, for example, to the more developed arguments of Justo Gonzalez in Faith and Wealth — an important work lacking from Heath’s bibliography — where a whole different emphasis comes to light).  Ultimately, he concludes that most were quite sympathetic to and supportive of the empire, apart from its ever-present violence and idolary (which, I believe, Heath only understands in the most obvious and superficial manner and which he does not seem to relate to some of the other areas where violence and idolatry operate — areas that have been highlighted by social theorists and philosophers who work in the domain of “postmodernism” that Heath rejects and, not surprisingly, misunderstands).

Hence, on the one hand, we see Heath acting as an historian should (dealing with primary source material… even if he is a little selective with it… who isn’t, right?).  But, on the other hand, we see him dismissing major scholarly endeavours without any critical engagement.  Heath can’t imagine any reason why the early Jesus followers would be anti-empire — and his “hunch” is that the early Jesus followers would better understand the “relative benefits of Roman rule” — and so he concludes that counter-imperial readings of the New Testament are simply grounded an assumption made by the interpeters who favour this reading: the New Testament is said to be counter-imperial because the interpreters are counter-imperial.

Of course, Heath is open to being faced with the same charge since he concludes that we are to act the same way today as he says the Church Fathers acted.  After all, he concludes his essay with these words: “They were good citizens, appreciative of the empire, and loyal to the emperor, but never completely a part of the empire, for their ultimate loyalty lay elsewhere (much to the chagrin of the imperial authorities).  This was the tension then, as it is today.”  But I think this just shows the vacuity of the charge he is making — if you’re going to dismiss a position simply because you believe the conclusions that are drawn support or are supported by the values of the person drawing those conclusions then you can dismiss almost everything that has ever been said.

That said, one more remark on the Church Fathers.  I find it interesting that so much focus has come upon the Church Fathers amongst Conservative or Evangelical scholars in the last decade or so (at least that’s my impression).  It seems as though they have gained something akin to canonical status in some circles.  Especially when it comes to interpreting the New Testament.  I find this troubling.  I believe that, in many ways, the Church Fathers betrayed the values we find in the New Testament (perhaps not even consciously for they came from a long line of people who were vying for power and control over the early Jesus Movement and we already see the seeds of this betrayal in the Pastoral Epistles or in the parties with whom Paul is struggling in Corinth).  Many of the Church Fathers are simply those who were most successful in gaining power of the Jesus Movement, gain the more powerful imperial patrons, killing or silencing their enemies (the “heretics”), and so on.  Why we would want to privilege them to the extent that many do is beyond me.  So sure, some Church Fathers wanted to be good citizens and appreciated the Roman Empire (as they had moved well away from the call of Jesus and Paul and were already well situated in places of power), but why we should see that as a model for our own actions — or as the lens through which we should interpret Jesus and Paul — is beyond me.  This is the case, not simply because I find that model unappealing, but also because I believe a good historian should take these kind of things into consideration.

2. Seeing Red: A History of Natives in Canadian Newspapers by Mark Cronlund Anderson and Carmen L. Robertson.

This book is a very good study of the ways in which First Nations peoples have been presented in the mainstream Canadian media over the last 120 or so years.  What becomes markedly apparent is the ways in which the mainstream media presents a vision of Canada and of First Nations peoples that is deeply entrenched in the mythical narratives of colonialism.  The media both recycles racist white, colonial representations of both settlers and indigenous peoples, and further entrenches those portrayals within the social imaginary of Canadians.  This study shows just how deeply colonialism is embedded into the core of Canada and being Canadian (therefore, recalling a somewhat distant — in internet time — conversation with a fellow at at Conservative blog, I would assert that the history of Canada’s relationship with Native peoples does indeed have “some sort of controlling relationship over the whole of Canadian action” [see here if you want]).  Of course, the problem is that the general public remains indoctrinated by the sort of thinking exemplified by the Canadian media and refuses to see a need to educate themselves further on this matter.  Hence, any assertions that challenge the dominant ideology tend to fall on deaf ears.

I’ve been thinking about this problem more since moving to a small predominantly white industrial city that relies upon jobs in plants that are poisoning the local First Nations community (and the town, too, although people don’t really talk about that).  I’ve tried to take the advice of Taiaiake Alfred seriously (who follows Malcolm X in suggesting that well-meaning white people stick to trying to educate and change other white people [if, that is, they are unwilling to assassinate the Minster of Aboriginal Affairs and Nothern Development, although I think he was joking about that]).  I’ve had many conversations at the bar with different people about matters related to the First Nations community here and nobody sees the problem and actually gets offended by what I say — charging me with “reverse racism” and a rude for of “exclusivity” and so on.  I’ve tried to present the broader picture and issues and so on, but all this falls on deaf ears.  I’m not sure how to better go about having these conversations but any suggestions are welcome.

Anyway, this is a really good book.  Recommended readings for any other living in these occupied territories.

3. Being and Time by Martin Heidegger.

It took me about ten months to read this book — I didn’t really start warming up to it until about halfway through, at which point I really started enjoying it — and I think it is one of the most difficult books I have read.  I’m sure that you need to read this book multiple times to follow along (kinda reminds me of Infinite Jest — about which, see below –in that once you get to the last page, you need to flip back to the first page and probably cycle through the book several times to catch everything you can).

There’s no way in hell I can summarize close to everything that Heidegger says in this book (google that if you want… good luck).  I could just pull some lines from other summaries online but that’s not really gonna get you anywhere and I’m not convinced that I’ll really even understand what I’m saying.  So, instead, I’ll just highlight a few ways in which this book stimulated me and challenged my thinking.  I found myself thinking a lot about how deeply embedded and enmeshed we are within our own particular worlds.  This made me think about notions of subjectivity or singularity and made me wonder how useful those things are.  Ditto for the traditional internal/external divides that we posit between our own selves and the world.  Tied into all this is the way in which we are, it seems to me, in many ways responsible for creating (naming) the worlds in which we live.  I talk about that in more detail in the ideology lecture I posted recently, and I think Being and Time is responsible for prompting me to think and speak in some of the ways I do there.  I also found myself nodding along to a lot of what Heidegger said about “the they” or “the they-self”.  Essentially, this refers to the ways in which many people simply permit others to define and create (and name) their world for them.  In order to think (and be?) well, one must break with “the they.”  Much of this resonates with me personally.

Anyway, I better just stop because I’m not getting anywhere close to addressing so much of what is written in this book.  I plan to read it again soon… maybe I’ll be able to speak about it better than.

4. The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language by Michel Foucault.

The more I think about it, the more I have come to believe that Foucault really might be the writer who has most influenced the way in which I read texts and the world (although I am also coming to suspect that the real underlying influence here is Nietzsche).  Despite the fact that I have only read a handful of his books, his interdisciplinary discipline is all-pervasive — seems hard to read much of anything that interests me in the last few years without finding his fingerprints all over the material.

Anyway, I found this these two pieces to be challenging but rewarding.  I particularly enjoyed the Discourse on Language, which examines the ways in which a particular discourse — and, therefore, what is taken to be true or what constitutes knowledge within that discourse — is delimited and controlled by certain procedures that are vested within particular arrangements of power and the interests of the powerful (or those who occupy privileged positions within those arrangements).  I find this essay to be fairly accessible, so it might be a decent (and short) place to start for those who are interested in these things.

The Archaeology of Knowledge was much more dense.  In this text, Foucault is sketching out the methodology he employed in his earlier works and is pointing the way forward to future areas of exploration.  Essentially, he is engaging in a form of analysis of history that is not given over to the study of “historical events” as such but, rather, is looking at the historical discourses that arise — their internal rules, the gaps the exist within them, the ways in which they relate to one another — and so on.  Hence, Foucault is not looking at people, places, and things, but “things said” (or not said) about people, places, and things and how and why those things are said (the “how” is explored more explicitly than the “why” in this text).  One of the results of this is that what constitutes knowledge is taken to be particular relations that come to exist between statements within a discourse.  In other words: “Knowledge is a matter of the social, historical, and political conditions under which, for example, statements come to count as true or false.”  I find myself wholeheartedly agreeing with this.

5. The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon.

This is Fanon’s study of colonialism and resistance and revolution in Africa.  It also contains his famous chapter connecting experiences of mental health disorders to the experience of being a colonized subject (something I’ve thought about a fair bit when considering the stories of demon-possession and exorcism found in the Gospels).  It really is a great book.  I did have some questions — in particulary, Fanon’s focus upon nation building and the somewhat deterministic evolutionary model he uses to describe the pursuit of liberation struck me as problematical (in a way, I was reminded of those economists who argued that south Asia has to go through sweat shop labour stage in order to get to something better and so on and so forth… although, of course, Fanon is arguing for something rather different, resembling more of the model provided by the stream of Marxist determinism).  I was also struck by Fanon’s emphasis that true revolution and liberation is not possible without violent resistance.  I would like to see how the “non-violent” activist types would engage Fanon’s argument (I’ve seen them engage folks like Gelderloos, Churchill, and Graeber — usually not very well — but I don’t recall any engagement with Fanon although he is generally known in those circles).

This is recommended reading and I’ll probably be reading more Fanon soon.

6. On Populist Reason by Ernesto Laclau.

I found it quite interesting to read this book by Laclau based upon my own experiences within activist circles, as a part of various efforts and movements of grassroots mobilization, and in light of the recent events related to the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement.  Basically, Laclau moves away from pejorative definitions of populism and examines how mass movements develop and grow — or, more appropriately, how collective identities come into being.    Laclau begins by commenting on earlier writers who studied “mobs” or mass movements and he argues against these readings because of the class- and ideologically-based agendas and ulterior motives he (appropriately, IMO) ascribes to those writers.

In the second part of the book, he looks at the ways in which populist movements come about and how various groups of very different people with very different agendas and goals can come together to form a “people.”  Laclau argues that the primary originary unifying factor is some sort of experience of exclusion — the demands of this party have not been met, its voice has not been included in the discussion, it has been ignored; a second party has had the same experience with its demands; same for a third party.  These parties, despite the fact that they may have very different demands, goals, and values, then begin to identify with one another in their shared experience of exclusion.  They may then come to construct a new corporate identity under a “floating signifier” which then comes to define and delimit the boundaries of this people.  Hence, with Occupy Wall Street, as an example, we can see how anarchists, people who are experiencing homelessness, anti-war protestors, anti-globalization protestors, socialists, Marxists, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhist, and so on, can all come together under the floating signifier of the “99%” and begin to form a new collective identity.

Laclau doesn’t use this example (the book came out in 2005) but he does look at various historical examples and various trajectories that can be taken as the formation of a collective identity takes place.  This is the third part of his book.  In his concluding section he engages some other current theorists to show how his position does or does not overlap with them.  He speaks most approvingly of Ranciere, and attacks Hardt and Negri along with Zizek.  I found his critical comments to be quite helpful and found myself nodding along.

I really enjoyed this book.  Laclau knows his theory but is a great communicator and I never felt lost in this book.  I found that surprising given, for example, how much he relies upon Lacan, because, in past experiences, I have found Lacanian writers to be anything but clear and easy to follow.  I’ve been trying to find anything that Laclau may have said about the Arab Spring or the Occupy Movement but have had trouble digging anything up so if anybody has some links, please send them my way!

[PS: found a PDF of this book online here: http://doublesession.net/indexhibitv070e/files/laclau-on-populist-reason.pdf%5D

7. Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money by Jacques Derrida.

I’m really not sure what to make of Derrida.  Of all the continental philosophy types, I’ve consistently found him the one that I had the hardest time getting excited about.  Perhaps that is because I understand him the least.  Reading through this book, there were definitely times when I felt that I didn’t understand what was going on… but there were other times when I felt like I did understand what was being discussed and I couldn’t understand why that mattered (or, for that matter, how what was being said fit into the broader argument… which then led me back to wondering if I actually did understand what was being discussed).  There were a few moments when I started to get genuinely interested and even excited about where Derrida seemed to be going with his argument — notably in some of his stuff relating the gift to time — but then it seemed like he dropped that trajectory of thought and never really got back into it.  So, for most of the time, I found what Derrida said to be interesting, somewhat confusing (sometimes about what was written and sometimes about why what was written actually mattered), but never totally exciting.

However, I still feel like I’m missing out on something (as in not understanding something important), so I think I’ll keep at him for a little while.

8.  Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard.

For whatever reason, I’ve never been able to get into Kierkegaard.  I had an anthology when I was younger that I tried to get into but it didn’t take (figured I was too young).  Then, during college, I thought I would try again with one of his shorter works and still no luck.  But, given for the ways in which various existentialists have really resonated with me in recent years I thought I would try again and try with one of his more famous works.  It still didn’t take.  I would say I found the book to be mostly a mixture of boring and a bit annoying.  And I don’t think he resolved the matter of Abraham sacrificing Isaac in a satisfactory manner (although that may have been part of the point).  I did enjoy what he said about the absurd, although the way he described things struck me as overly romantic and somewhat self-induldgent (that’s the annoying bit I mentioned a moment ago).  Still, it struck me as an interesting counterpoint to the absurdity explored by Sartre and Camus.  Within the theatre of the absurd, Sartre’s nausea, Camus’ persistence in doing good, and Kierkegaard’s faith are all equally viable options.  That is to say: if it’s all fucking pointless then there’s no point in believing in God… and if it’s all fucking pointless than there’s no point in not believing in God.

9. The Munk Debates: Volume One edited by Rudyard Griffiths.

This was a bit of lighter reading but it was quite fun.  Prominent thinkers or members of various philosophical or political positions were invited to debate various resolutions and audience members voted their agreement with those resolutions both before and after the debate.  Along the way, matters of global security, “humanitarian” intervention, foreign aid, climate change, and health care are discussed.  It was interesting to spend a little more time within the dominant positions (Conservative/Liberal) as I tend to spend most of my time exploring positions that fall outside of that binary.  Personally, I think I found the debate on foreign aid to be the most interesting.  In that debate, two people whom I admire a fair bit — Stephen Lewis and Hernando De Soto were arguing against one another about the efficacy and value of foreign aid.  Dambisa Moyo was also involved (I’m reading her book Dead Aid right now and, while I appreciate her criticisms, I really dislike her solutions… not surprising, I suppose, given her professional background).  I find myself in a funny position there.  I tend to admire the aid advocates, while agreeing with the criticisms made by the aid critics, while simultaneously not agreeing with the solutions proposed by those same critics.

10.Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.

It took me about 250pp to really get gripped by this monster of a book but, once I was gripped, I really couldn’t put it down.  Wallace does a phenomenal job of creating and inhabiting a multitude of diverse characters and then weaving their stories together.  Granted, the grand finale takes place outside the boundaries of the book (a point that seems to have upset more than one reader) but, as Wallace pointed out several times, all the threads are in place so that the reader is able to follow the trajectory of the narrative beyond the book to come to a conclusion of sorts (or the reader can simply start reading the book again from the beginning in an infinite cycle).

In a way, this book felt, to me, like In Search of Lost Time (and not just because both books are so damn long!).  Like Proust, I found that Wallace’s voice became hypnotic… it didn’t much matter what the content of the book was, just listening to the voice of the narrator(s) was captivating enough in and of itself.  Recommended reading.

11. Dr. Faustus by Christopher Marlowe.

I just needed something light and easy to read on the side for awhile so I chose this play by Marlowe.  I always find it a little odd to read plays (instead of, you know, watching a play be performed… which is how a play is intended to be read… which is always why I found it frustrating that we were required to read Shakespeare throughout high-school English… but I digress).  I can’t say that I found it particularly exciting.  The characters, the plot, the dramatic moments, all were rather ho-hum.  Probably the most interesting thing about reading this was actually thinking about what was considered “entertaining” and “interesting” when this play was first written and performed (1604 & 1616), versus what is considered “entertaining” and “interesting” now.

12-13. Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone by Sophocles.

I’ve noticed that Antigone seems to get a certain amount of attention amongst philosophers or social theorists so, having already read Oedipus the King I thought I would read Antigone and the other play, Oedipus at Colonus, that constitute this trilogy from Sophocles.  I found the plays interesting as a part of understanding the broader context and sociopolitical or cultural dynamics that were operative in the Greek and then Roman worlds.  Notably, remarks about and the focus upon law, order, justice, the righteousness of the ruler and the impiety and sheer madness of those who broke the law or challenged the order of things were of interest to me.  The stories themselves, however, were rather dull (to me).  It’s interesting to see the limits of performing a drama without all the benefits of contemporary technology (or contemporary ways of developing characters).  The stories go something like this:

“We gonna go and fight!”
[Fighters leave stage.]
[Messenger returns.]
“We won/lost!”

Then:
“I’m gonna go die now!”
[Person leaves stage.]
[Messenger returns.]
“He died!”

I wasn’t exactly on the edge of my seat (although, to be fair, it’s hard to transition from Wallace to Sophocles).

14. Political Speeches by Cicero.

I initially got into this because I wanted to read Cicero’s roast of Antony (which ultimately got him killed) as I’ve been doing a fair bit of reading around the rise of Augustus and trying to understand the dynamics of the Roman Empire within the first century BCE and the first century CE.  But then I got drawn in and ended up reading the rest of the speeches.  Cicero is a talented rhetorician so that makes reading him both easy and pleasurable to read (well, not always pleasurable, depends on your interest in the subject matter).  One of the things that really jumped out to me is the way in which Cicero spoke about Julius Caesar when in the Senate shortly after the assassination of Caesar.  Very clearly there were very many people who spoke approvingly of that death and who considered Caesar a tyrant who needed to be murdered.  This is a far cry from the divine Father he turned into, not very long afterwards(!), in the Augustan ideology.  It’s interesting to see how public opinion — or what can and is said in public — can change so very rapidly.  Augustus really was a genius when it came to formulating and embodying the kind of ideology necessary for the stabilization of imperial hegemony.

15. Poems of Akhmatova, selected, trans. and ed. by Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward.

The Last Toast

I drink to our ruined house,
to the dolor of my life,
to our loneliness together;
and to you I raise my glass,
to lying lips that have betrayed us,
to dead-cold pitiless eyes,
and to the hard realities:
that the world is brutal and coarse
that God in fact has not saved us.

And from a longer piece she wrote about waiting outside of a jail trying to find a way to see her son (along with a whole host of other mothers doing the same):

I have learned how faces fall to bone,
how under the eyelids terror lurks,
how suffering inscribes on cheeks
the hard lines of its cuneiform texts,
how glossy black or ash-fair locks
turn overnight to tarnished silver,
how smiles fade on submissive lips,
and fear quavers in dry titter.
And I pray not for myself alone…
for all who stood outside the jail,
in bitter cold or summer’s blaze,
with me under that blind red wall.

16. Book of Hours by Rilke.

I no longer have this book with me to provide some excerpts in this review (which is what I usually like to do with poetry) but I will say that I found this collection of Rilke’s to be pleasant but not particularly overwhelming.  You can certainly see the traces of themes and patterns of thought that are more developed in The Duino Elegies and some of the later writings appearing in nascent form here.  So, for that reason, I found this collection interesting but, apart from a few lines or poems that really stood out, I can’t say that I was all that moved by this book.

17. Habibi by Craig Thompson.

I’ve been waiting a long time for this graphic novel — Thompson’s first serious efforts since Blankets (my favourite graphic novel ever).  Even if it falls short of Thompson’s masterpiece, it is still an excellent work — above pretty much everything else in the genre.  The artwork is second-to-none.  The story is also very good and continues to develop themes I expect from Thompson — questions concerning faith, sexuality, violence, meaning, and trying to find one’s place in the world.  In many ways, it feels like a follow-up to Blankets, in that one feels that Thompson continues to personally wrestle with all these things as he tells the story.  Recommended reading.

18. Stitches: A Memoir by David Small.

Another graphic novel that follows the autobiographical format. The author uses the medium quite well to speak about being a child who — unbeknownst to him — developed throat cancer and had a surgery performed when he was fourteen years old.  The surgeon slashed his throat, removed one of his vocal chords, and left him so that he could barely speak.  This is the central symbolic event, from which the book derives its title, but there is much more at play here — about dealing with a multitude of family members who are abusive, or ill, or guilt-ridden(but never inhuman), about making peace with ones past, about finding one’s own way in the world and finding one’s voice.  It is a quick read but recommended.

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