Holiday Reading

For my holiday reading, I picked up a bit more fiction than usual, but mostly concentrated on reading some secondary literature on my friend Castoriadis.

  • James, C.L.R., Grace C. Lee, and Pierre [AKA Castoriadis Chalieu, Cornelius]. 1974 [1958]. Facing Reality. Detroit: Bewick/ed.

In this excellent work, Castoriadis (under one of the assumed names he was forced to use prior to attaining French citizenship), joined CLR James and Grace C. Lee (who mounted the Johnson-Forest Tendency within the American Fourth International before finally wising up and renouncing Trotskyism altogether) and wrote one of the most important pieces of analysis and propoganda regarding the Hungarian Revolution. Focusing on the importance of worker’s councils and direct control of economic and social life, they emphasize not the basic illegitimacy of political control, but its basically corrupt and corrupting aspects, which inherently alienate control from those who find themselves under it. (Spanish poder sobre, for instance). While it still suffers a bit from what a friend of mine calls the “Trot Hangover” (which Castoriadis, more than any other writer who continued to consider himself a ‘revolutionary,’ conquered, eventually renouncing Marxism entirely), this is a vitally important piece of work that stands up. There’s a funny piece on automation which could stand to be updated in the light of our supposedly ‘virtual economy,’ but this deserves to be read. Some of my fellow workers in the IWW and I will be discussing this as a group soon.

  • Wolfenstein, Eugene Victor. 1996. Review: Psychoanalysis in Political Theory. Political Theory 24 (4):706-728.
  • Curtis, David Ames, and Andreas Kalyvas. 1998. Fighting the wrong enemy?: comments on Wolfenstein’s critique of Castoriadis. Political Theory 26 (6):818-824.
  • Wolfenstein, Eugene Victor. 1998. Reply to Curtis and Kalyvas. Political Theory 26 (6):825-829.

I must say I was mightily disappointed by all the entries in this exchange. Wolfenstein‘s reviews are well-written but thinly evidenced, and for those of us who have actually read some of the books and their sources which he reviews, the disconnect is all the more apparent. This is pointed out, with a great deal of vitriol, by Curtis and Kalyvas, but they fail to note that whatever his faults, Wolfenstein does in fact raise points which are important to argue, or at least clarify. They miss the opportunity, instead (somewhat bizzarely) portraying Wolfenstein’s review as a masked attack on Castoriadis. Wolfenstein responds even more snarkily, losing what credibility he had to begin with. Everyone missed out on many opportunities here. Depressing, reallly. Especially since Castoriadis could, and should, be really important in contemporary analysis.

  • Thompson, John B. 1982. Ideology and the social imaginary: an appraisal of Castoriadis and Lefort. Theory and Society 11 (5):659-681.
  • Joas, Hans. 1989. Institutionalization as a creative process: the sociological importance of Cornelius Castoriadis’ political philosophy. The American Journal of Sociology 94 (5):1184-1199.

These two pieces, on the other hand, are much more interesting, important, and well-written. While they have their own problems, they tend towards the explanatory, introductory, and lucid, attempting to introduce the work and thought of Castoriadis to an American audience. Thompson concentrates on the much-underappreciated relationship between Lefort and Castoriadis: Lefort, a student of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, is very likely the original source for the radically relational model of cognition which pervades Castoriadis and is the basis for his denial of universal reason (itself one of his most radical and frankly liberating moments). Together, prior to their departure from the Fourth International, they mounted the Chaulieu-Montal Tendency. Joas gives one of the best introductions to Castoriadis I’ve ever read, though he tends to reproduce some of the silly Habermasian criticisms which seem endemic to the continental theater.

As for fiction and other stuff, I got a chance to read, and re-read, some great stuff:

  • Abram, David. 1996. The spell of the sensuous: perception and language in a more-than-human world. New York: Pantheon Books.

This is one of those books, like Thom Hartmann’s horrible Hours of ancient sunlight, that I read on the recommendation of people whose blogs I read regularly. After the Hartmann fiasco, I was suspicious of this one, unnecessarily. This is a beautiful, and probably important book. Or at least, the first three chapters are. After those brilliant, and beautifully written chapters (the whole book is a testament to the possibility and power of lucid, gorgeous prose) on phenomenology, ecology, and perception, the argument goes off into a specific discussion of the role of literacy in the degradation of natural awareness. The main argument doesn’t hold too well, in my opinion, though many of the sub-arguments do, and are fascinating and worth reading in their own right. Regardless, I keep looking for ways to bring it up in conversation. It’s a great read, and clarified many things for me. It’s also, not coincidentally, a wonderful way to introduce others to the difficult philosophy of phenomenology and especially to the ideas of Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

  • Ondaatje, Michael. 2000. Anil’s ghost. New York: Vintage International.

I’ve been meaning to read this for ages: I mean, it’s Ondaatje, for one thing, and it’s about Theravadan Asia (Sri Lanka), violence, and the dead. It lived up to the hype; better written than the rather florid English Patient, it runs through the land and the people of Sri Lanka in beautiful sentences, bringing to light the horror and survival that have been visited on the populace, and emphasizes the basic decency and courage of ordinary people. I recently reviewed an edited volume which had one very promising piece on this book, and hope to go revisit that now that I’ve actually read this book.

  • Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. 1990 [1983]. Anti-oedipus: capitalism and schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Always one of Deleuze and Guattari’s weakest and least-coherent efforts (try reading What is Philosophy? for a wonderful, mind-bending counterpoint), I’ve always wondered why it was this book that got Foucault‘s kudo that it was the “guide to the anti-fascist life.” Sure, killing the cop in one’s head is a great idea, but Wilhelm Reich, whose ideas, along with those of R.D. Laing, both penetrate and occasionally enervate this book, wrote that one a long time ago. Why do D&G need to rewrite that, even less coherently? The innovative ideas – Living Machines, Bodies without Organs (BwO), their radical redefinition of Desire, are much better presented in A Thousand Plateaus. Actually, even better than that is the presentation given by Manuel DeLanda in his book A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, and his subsequent Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy.

  • Klein, Naomi. 1999. No logo: taking aim at the brand bullies. New York: Picador Press.

I never read this before! A major moment in American radical history, this was published just months before N30 in Seattle, when the teargas literally entered my living room, and my entire neighborhood was on the streets trying to run the cops out of town (less, it must be said, for the ideals of a decent economic system than for the principle that non-local cops had no right to invade our neighborhood in riot gear, firing concussion grenades and tear gas). A bit dated after N30, it nevertheless shocked me, and brought me back to the days right after college when I was temping for one of the most awful companies in the world, Landor Associates, one of the companies that invented the very practice of branding. Klein hasn’t stopped doing great projects. Her recent documentary, The Take, filmed with her husband, is a brilliant and moving examination of the factory recuperation movement in Argentina.

  • Boyle, T. C. 2003. Drop City. New York: Penguin.

Lazy drug-addled Californian hippies head north to Alaska. Hilarity and horror ensue. Worth a read, even if like me you’re somewhat suspicious of Boyle’s writing.

  • Palahniuk, Chuck. 2003. Diary. New York: Doubleday.

I love Palahniuk‘s writing, his phrasing, and his perception. This book reads a mile a minute. But the story just didn’t grab me. I mean, a haunted island?


2 thoughts on “Holiday Reading

  1. Pingback: Phnomenon: food in Cambodia » Angkor: Built with the blood of slaves for your tourism pleasure

  2. Pingback: Deathpower in Cambodia » Blog Archive » Reading

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