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Archive for the ‘books’ Category

Matthew B. Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015

This sounds like a rather interesting book, although I have only read a brief extract and a review. I like Crawford’s point, at least as described in the review below, that we need to pay focused attention to the constraints of physical reality, rather than losing ourselves in an abstract screen world of virtual possibilities. This is a point being made by a number of philosophers at present.

I’m not so keen on the concept of ‘mastery’ referred to below however, as this all smacks a bit too much of domination for my tastes. I would prefer to think of ‘working with’, rather than submitting things to our will. And because I can never resist throwing in a reference to Foucault: this focus on our interaction with the physical and the material, a materiality which is both human and non-human, and the necessity of patiently working with it at a whole range of levels, is arguably one of the primary focuses of Foucault’s work as well, and what makes his work so easily applicable to so many domains.

Reviewed by Nick Romeo at The Daily Beast, 5 March 2015.

Extract from review:

Crawford’s solution [to the distractions of the modern world] is not that we retreat into soothing sensory deprivation tanks; he advocates engaging with the “the brute alien otherness of the real” as apprentices and eventually masters. His ideals of focused attention are activities in which we exercise freedom not by purchasing products to express our will, but by submitting to the intrinsic demands of the external world in some restricted domain and accommodating its realities in skillful and intelligent ways. This sounds far more obscure than it actually is: playing ice hockey, practicing glassblowing, learning Russian, working as a short-order cook, building pipe organs, and playing an instrument are some of the examples he gives.

Nietzsche once said that joy is the feeling of one’s power increasing. Crawford appropriates the remark to argue that getting good at skilled actions fulfills a fundamental human need that our culture often neglects by offering instant technological solutions. In one fascinating section, he compares Mickey Mouse cartoons from the early and middle 20th century to children’s television today. The older shows present the physical world as a source of menace and humor: one thing that the constant collisions, crashes, explosions, and general slapstick show is that characters are subject to immutable laws of physics. Nature does not pander to its denizens; it follows that it’s a good idea to pay attention to the world and try to understand how it works rather than how you would like it to work.

In the contemporary Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, by contrast, a Handy Dandy machine solves problems by presenting pre-approved options on a screen menu. Technology has conquered risk and peril, and material reality meekly obeys the wills of characters, provided they have the appropriate gadgets.

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Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of EvilEthics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil by Alain Badiou


Alain Badiou, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil. Trans. and intro. Peter Hallward. London: Verso.

I will say from the outset that I found this book opaque in its argumentation and fundamentally alien to my own philosophical stance. Thus I am happy to stand corrected on any of the points I make here. From my perspective at least, Alain Badiou comes across as an old-fashioned existentialist with a few postmodern trimmings around the edges. His other work enlisting esoteric mathematical and set theory in the discussion of philosophical problems does nothing to alter this impression.

I’ll begin by making a few points of comparison with another thinker with whom I’m more familiar, namely Foucault. Foucault is interested in how truth emerges in and through quite specific historical experiences and the historical complexities of the interaction of truth with power relations, whereas Badiou seems more interested in proposing a number of abstract and eternal ontological principles. Even if the latter are only able to manifest in history and in specific instances and through embodied subjectivities, they effectively transcend time and culture and are universal. As Badiou remarks: ‘I think there are truth-procedures everywhere and they are universal; that a Chinese novel, Arabic algebra, Iranian music … that all this is, in the end universal by right’ (pp.140-1).

Badiou mentions Foucault in his book to applaud his rejection of humanism in the 1960s. He notes that this didn’t mean that Foucault and other anti-humanists of the 1960s were amoral nihilists as they took an activist stance in favour of the oppressed. He doesn’t mention, however, the reasoning Foucault used to support his anti-humanist position. This was precisely that ‘humanism’ provided a very limited and abstract definition of what it was to be human, with the end result that large numbers of people were actually excluded from the ranks of the human. In short, humanism was not inclusive or ethical enough.

Badiou makes the assertion that if the human animal is certainly mortal, humans can transcend that limited animal condition and achieve a immortality through accessing the truth. This ‘immortality’ is guaranteed by the fact that the truths being accessed are eternal and exist across time – even if they still need to be historically embodied or brought into history in order to exist. So individual humans remain mortal, but the truth they bring into history transcends time and culture and makes them (metaphorically) immortal in general and in theory. Thus, we have immortality of some kind of abstract human spirit rather than the human individual.

Unfortunately, I can see no good reason to be convinced by these assertions or by the convoluted arguments around what constitutes an ‘event’, where truth somehow emerges in history and then persists through subjective practices of ‘fidelity’. Interesting ideas, but without any detailed historical or empirical grounding to provide some kind of real world purchase, I remain sceptical.

Badiou makes the interesting point that popular contemporary ethics makes the tacit assumption that Evil, rather than Good is primary. By this, he means that ethics doesn’t crank into gear unless it has an evil (oppression of minorities, discrimination etc) to rail against. This leads essentially to a loss of hope and a diminishment of truth. If we start from ideas of the Good or a Utopian stance against which to measure things then we have a more viable ethics. Fair enough, but again this is all terribly vague. Badiou firmly states that there is no God in his schema (p. 25), but he offers a range of abstract concepts which, it could be argued, do nothing but stand in as problematic substitutes requiring an equal amount of belief and whose power effects remain unclear, for all Badiou’s declared radical political stance.

For a more extensive and perhaps more sympathetic review see Andrew McGettigan on The Philosopher site (Interactive electronic incarnation of the Journal of the Philosophical Society of England)

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Les philosophes et l'amour: aimer de Socrate à Simone de BeauvoirLes philosophes et l’amour: aimer de Socrate à Simone de Beauvoir by Aude Lancelin

My rating: ***

Aude Lancelin et Marie Lemonnier (2008) Les philosophes et l’amour: Aimer de Socrate à Simone de Beauvoir. Paris: Plon

I was prompted to read this book by Alain Badiou’s reference to it in his essay In Praise of Love. Written by two female journalists working for the prominent French intellectual and cultural weekly Le Nouvel Observateur, this book is a lively, well-written and often subtly ironic account aimed at an educated general public.

The authors point out that love and philosophy have never made happy bed fellows with philosophers engaging in only limited discussion on the notion of love. Further, what discussion does exist, is very one-sided as most philosophers historically have been male.

The philosophers the two authors examine, with numerous additional references to both historical and contemporary works of fiction and other philosophers, include Socrates, Lucretius, Epicurius, Montaigne,Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Kant. Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Arendt, Sartre and de Beauvoir.

For all the generosity of the authors in trying to render justice to these thinkers, they cannot help but highlight the outrageous hypocrisy and frequently toxic practices and ideas of the chosen philosophers. The two female philosophers, Arendt and De Beavoir, are unfortunately on a par with the men. If one is looking for positive, insightful or even helpful writing on love and male female relations this book demonstrates that one should under no circumstances turn to mainstream Western philosophy (for all Alain de Botton’s attempts to reinstate Schopenhauer in his book The Consolations of Philosophy).

If however, one is interested in some of the less pleasant byways of the human psyche or insights into the historical ideas that have aided and abetted ongoing hostilities between the sexes and the denigration of women, then a reading of mainstream Western philosophy is an instructive if somewhat gloomy experience.

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Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion by Alain de Botton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

[Secular society] expects that we will spontaneously find our way to the ideas that matter to us and give us weekends off for consumption and recreation. Like science, it privileges discovery. It associates repetition with punitive shortage, presenting us with an incessant stream of new information – and therefore it prompts us to forget everything.

For example, we are enticed to go to the cinema to see a newly released film, which ends up moving us to an exquisite pitch of sensitivity, sorrow and excitement. We leave the theatre vowing to reconsider our entire existence in light of the values shown on screen, and to purge ourselves of our decadence and haste. And yet by the following evening, after a day of meetings and aggravations, our cinematic experience is well on its way to oblivion, just like so much else which once impressed us but which we soon enough came to discard.

Alain de Botton, Religion for atheists. A non believer’s guide to the uses of religion, London: Hamish Hamilton p. 133

Random thoughts in response

De Botton argues that religion is aware of our propensity to forget and provides repetitive structures, activities and calendars to continually remind us of the important things. This is something that secular society does not do, except when it comes to work and economic productivity, leaving us free to source inspiration from wherever we can find it. This means we forget and don’t reinforce self transformative practices. From an entirely different angle, John Medina in a popular science discussion of how the brain and memory works posits as ‘brain rule’ number 5 ‘Repeat to remember’ and ‘brain rule’ number 6 ‘remember to repeat’. In short, repetition is essential to the process of learning. [1]

One could consider media fan practices of viewing long form serial television in the context of these two discussions. Fans will draw lasting lessons and engage in transformative practices of the self by exercising quite particular viewing practices in relation to their chosen subject matter. Although films – particularly films which have sequels – are also subject to fan activity, television series are perhaps more strongly susceptible to a certain kind of work on the self. A television series features a story, characters and a universe that can sometimes span years in real time and is delivered in weekly, sometimes daily instalments. Thus, we have a regular calendar occurrence which keeps the material present in the viewer’s mind. Further to this, a typical fan viewing practice is to view episodes multiple times, and to repetitively rewind and review select short scenes within those episodes. The fan may then go on to further reinforce this input by transforming it into creative and social practices such as discussion with other fans, fan fiction writing or other creative output.

This process allows the fan viewer to assimilate those lessons and insights that they have connected to and garnered from the source text. Thus the fragility of the secular experience of art, drawn attention to by de Botton, is counteracted by certain kinds of fan practices. This indicates, perhaps, that there exists considerable resistance to contemporary incitations to engage in a disposable consumerism that has no term. Further, if one goes down the sometimes dubious brain science route, it might indicate that people continue to be aware of the techniques that need to be practised to foster learning and self transformation. In either case, it is clear that living in an unstable void of an endless featureless stream of temporary rhizomic connections is not an attractive proposition to many people.

[1] John Medina, Brain Rules, 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school, Brunswick: Scribe Publications, 2008, pp. 119, 147

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Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment KitchenJulie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen by Julie Powell
My rating: *

Julie Powell, Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen, Little, Brown and Company, 2005.

I read this book (adapted for film as Julie and Julia) to get some ideas of how to turn a blog on housesitting into a book. Alas, no clues were forthcoming on this front and I found the narrator’s world of overwrought hysterical chaos rather hard to take. It was all terribly domestic as well which I found dreadfully dreary. I think I probably just have to face the fact that I am an unrepentant crime fiction reader and chick lit and variations thereof leave me completely cold.

The post September 11 work in a government organisation trying to sort out the mess is interesting – but again the narrator’s constant state of manic chaos is very wearing – even if the author clearly intends it to be read as amusing.

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Cult TV: The Essential Critical GuideCult TV: The Essential Critical Guide by Jon E. Lewis
My rating: ****

Jon E. Lewis, Cult TV: The Essential Critical Guide, Pavilion Books, 1994.

I noticed a few months ago that Google appears to have acquired Goodreads, a social networking and book cataloguing site to which I subscribe. At least that is my explanation for why Goodreads reviews are now listed on the relevant book pages on Google books. Given this higher degree of internet exposure, I decided that my reviews needed tidying up and updating. Most of my Goodreads reviews are already included on this blog, but a few of the more lightweight reviews (not books!) are not. Time to remedy that absence…

Jon E. Lewis’ book on Cult TV is a really useful and nicely put together reference book for TV fans. It is composed of encyclopedia style entries accompanied by black and white photos on a whole host of cult TV series from the birth of television in the 1950s to the time of publication in 1994. It covers a range of genres: science fiction, crime, westerns, children’s programmes, melodrama, adventure and comedy.

I have spent many a happy evening browsing the entries, discovering new series and gathering information on ones already seen. This book was written in the days when fandom really was a specialised subculture before it was quasi mainstreamed by the internet and as such displays the friendly approach that goes along with addressing a relatively small group.

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The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher CreativityThe Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron
My rating: **

Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam; 2nd Edition, 2002.

This book is an international best seller and often referred to in discussions on writers’ process, with many fiction writers claiming it has changed their whole approach to writing and other creative writing teachers and writers referring to it as a notable text in the field.

I bought this book to see if it could offer any tips on writer’s block, but it is a fairly standard New Age self help manual. I am not opposed to New Age approaches but having read so much of this kind of material in the past, new offerings tend to blend into sameness when I read them these days. Some of the suggestions in the book are useful from a technical point of view, but personally I didn’t find them very inspiring. Its firm location in North American culture probably didn’t help me to identify with much in the book either.

By far the best and most practical book I have read on writer’s block is Robert Boice’s well researched Professors as Writers. If his advice is aimed at an academic market, it doesn’t just work for academic writers, it provides helpful tips for writers of all genres.

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