in Book Reviews, Books

September Books

Well, I managed to finish of the last of my summer books at the start of the month and then I dove into Wittgenstein. Expect to see a lot more of him, as well as Barth and Paul, over the next little while. Sorry that some of these reviews are so obtuse and that most of them are altogether too brief. This is the best I can do for now.
1. Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire by Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmaat.
Within this book Walsh and Keesmaat read Colossians in light of postmodern philosophy and counter-cultural voices and practices. In essence they wrote a whole new kind of commentary. Consequently they focus on issues of empire (then and now), truth (and truth as it relates to imagination, improvisation, and performance), and ethics (in particulare the ethics of secession, community, liberation, and suffering). For those within the sphere of biblical studies who are unfamiliar with counter-cultural voices, well, this book is nothing short of explosive. And for those within the realm of biblical studies who are familiar with the counter-culture, well, we find ourselves thinking, “It’s about damn time.”
2. The Bible in Politics: How to Read the Bible Politically by Richard Bauckham.
Although a little more dated than the book by Walsh and Keesmaat (1989 vs. 2004), and although Bauckham’s perspective is quite different, this book is an important read because it gives the biblical voice priority over all other voices. Instead of reading the bible through the lenses of various other political paradigms, Bauckham tries to let the bible speak on its own terms (of course, the extent to which Bauckham succeeds in this effort will be left to the discerning mind of the reader). Because of his desire to give the biblical texts priority Bauckham ends up espousing positions that end up making both ends up the spectrum uncomfortable. Too radical to be wholeheartedly accepted by mainstream Christianity, and too conservative to be wholeheartedly accepted by the radicals, Bauckham’s is a voice that deserves to be heard.
3. Evil and the Justice of God by N. T. Wright.
Another work of biblical, political theology (or, better yet, theopolitical exegesis), this is Wright’s latest offering within which he begins to wrestle with issues of evil in light of the cross of Christ. Wright begins by critiquing the efforts that the Western philosophical tradition have made to resolve the problem of evil. Instead of treating evil as some sort of epistemological puzzle, Wright argues that it is better to examine what God does about evil. Thus, he traces the biblical narrative in light of this theme and settles on the cross as the point where evil (of all sorts) hits rock bottom. Thus, stressing the Christus Victor model of the atonement, Wright argues that God decisively defeats evil on the cross of Jesus (as the resurrection so powerfully reveals). Therefore, Christians are those called to be shaped by the cross of Christ and thereby “implement the victory of God in the world through suffering love.” This implementation is one that must take place at a corporate, political level and (somewhat secondarily) at an individual level. Consequently, Wright explores issues relating to empire, war, the criminal justice system, and art. Wright argues for a Christian approach rooted in prayer, holiness, reconciliation, restorative justice, and education of the imagination. Ultimately, Wright argues the people of God should be a people defined by forgiveness (and here he draws heavily from Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace, L. Gregory Jones’ Embodying Forgiveness, and Desmond Tutu’s No Future Without Forgiveness — and, IMHO, these three books are exceptional, some of the best written on the topic of forgiveness).
4. Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community by Wendell Berry.
This is my first time actually reading Berry (I was lead to this book by some references made in Colossians Remixed) and I must say that I quite enjoyed him. There is a great blend of poetry and academics, gentleness and force, and humour and brokenheartedness in his writings. I especially enjoyed two essays: the first on the joys of sales resistance (his comments on education and the trajectory of Western culture were both hilarious and bang-on) and the last on sex and economics in which he argued that sex and economics are intimately related to one another and one cannot be discussed, or addressed, apart from the other.
5. Civilization and Its Discontents by Sigmund Freud.
This was Freud’s follow-up to The Future of an Illusion and this is the place where Freud’s reflections on agression and the opposition between the death drive and Eros really come to the fore. Really it’s a summary of Freud’s reflection on culture from his rather interesting psychoanalytical perspective. Freud continues to posit the opposition of the individual’s desires with the demands of civilization. This opposition leaves us all trapped in an unresolved (and unresolvable) tension. Hence the batle between the culturally influenced “superego” and the radically independent “id.” This battle is what occurs when the conflict between the individual and civilization is internalized. This book was quite fun to read and it is good to read Freud in light of his (lasting?) influence on Western civilization.
6. On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness by Jacques Derrida.
This book is composed of two separate essays by Derrida, the first on cosmopolitanism and the second on forgiveness (surprise, surprise). Within the first essay, Derrida wrestles with the immigrantion issues that France, along with much of Europe, faces. He explore the notion of establishing “cities of refuge” that are independent of nation-states, and thus he revisits the role that the city places within the (inter)national realm of politics. I found this essay to be interesting, although the topics explored were pretty much completely off my radar right now. The second essay, however, was one that I found quite interesting. Within the second essay, Derrida argues that forgiveness really only applies to that which is unforgivable. Over against corporate and political functions that cheapen forgiveness (i.e. Korea forgiving Japan for War Crimes… as if a State can forgive another State for crimes certain individuals committed against certain other individuals), and over against other (related) approaches to forgiveness that simply make forgiveness the appropriate and required response within an economic exchange (i.e. when a person repents and performs the appropriate penance they are said to merit forgiveness), Derrida argues that “forgiveness forgives only the unforgivable… It can only be possible in doing the impossible.” Thus true forgiveness must be unconditional, which really means that forgiveness is a form of “madness” (this is not a term that Derrida uses perjoratively, for he embraces this model of forgiveness) that cannot be reduced to any of these other forms or to “the therapy of reconciliation” (i.e. any way of expressing the approach that treats forgiveness as a means to an end). However, in the day to day reality of life one must deal seriously with issues of penance, repentance, and reconciliation and thus Derrida finds himself with two indissociable, irreconcilable poles: unconditional forgiveness, and conditional “forgiveness.”
7. Wittgenstein by G. H. von Wright.
This is a collection of essays that von Wright put together based upon his research and his friendship with Wittgenstein. I found his biographical reflections (“Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Biographical Sketch” and “Wittgenstein in Relation to his Times”) to be both useful and interesting, and I found his essay entitled “Wittgenstein on Certainty” to be the most useful academic essay within the book. The two essay tracing the origins of the Tractatus and the origins of the Philosophical Investigations (along with the essay that documents Wittgenstein’s papers) were extraordinarily boring, and I had a helluva time understanding the essay entitled “Wittgenstein on Probability.” So this book was a real mix, but when it was good it was really good.
8. Wittgenstein’s Tractatus: An Introduction by Alfred Nordmann.
Nordmann’s purpose in writing this book is to resolve the most basic and lasting problem of the TLP: how can it be both nonsensical and persuasive? If philosophy is nonsense, and if the TLP is nonsense (which it admits to being) then why should we be persuaded by its argument? Well, we should be convinced because the TLP actually identifies four types of language. Over against those who only see three types of language in the TLP (descriptive language that is both grammatical and significant [Sinnvoll]; logical language that is grammatical but senseless [Sinnlos]; and philosophical language [ungrammatical/nonsensical and senseless]), Nordmann adds a fourth type: language that is ungrammatical/nonsensical but significant. It is this fourth type of language that is used by the TLP. Thus, employing the subjunctive mood (which is the definitive form of this fourth type of language since it uses hypothetical terms [i.e. “if this is the case then this…”) the TLP follows a reductio ad absurdum argument (which is itself a form of argumentation that is nonsensical and yet not senseless). Of course, in order to make this claim Nordmann must posit an hypothesis that must exist before the first statement of the TLP. This hypothesis is that “anything whatsoever is expressible in speech” and this is precisely what is denied at the end of the reductio ad absurdum argument when Wittgenstein concludes that “there is indeed the inexpressible in speech.” Along the way, Wittgenstein limits language to the descriptive mode — language is a contingent picture of contingent reality, and it is true or false if its various elements align with one another in the same way in which the various elements of reality align with one another — any attempt to do anything else with language is nonsense (although there is useful, and un-useful nonsense, as should now be clear). Because the TLP is a useful form of nonsense (i.e. because it makes sense) it is best to undestand it as a thought experiment which is itself a gesture — precisely like the other gestures which cause other nonsensical expressions like “I love you” to make sense. In this way we prompt expressions to show what they cannot say. Consequently the final words of the TLP are not a command to say nothing, rather they require us to speak acknowledged nonsense, realizing that speaking nonsense it a way of staying silent. This, then, is how Nordmann reads the TLP. I find his reading to be quite intriguing.
9. Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations: An Introduction by David G. Stern.
Well, I knew reading some secondary lit on the PI would be useful… but I didn’t realize how much of the PI I really didn’t get (at all) until I got into this book. Stern basically deals with the first 268 sections of the PI and argues that Wittgenstein’s argument traces a number of paradoxes: the paradox of ostension (an ostensive definition can be variously interpreted in every case) which reveals that ostension presupposes knowledge of how language games work, and it thus cannot be the foundation for learning a first language, although it is quite useful for learning any second or third languages; the paradox of explanation (an explanation can be variously interpreted in every case) which reveals itself because every explanation requires another explanation; the rule-following paradox (a rule can be variously interpreted in every case) which is basically the sum of the first two paradoxes; the paradox of intentionality (a sign can be variously interpreted in every case) which follows from the previous paradox; the paradox of rule-following (which argues that a rule, taken in isolation, can never determine all its future applications because a change in the context in which the rule is given will create a change in the application) which then leads one to examine the circumstances within which the experience of “understanding” occurs, and not examine the experience itself, in order to say whether or not a person understands how to follow a rule or system — this then makes Wittgenstein a “holist” about rule-following: rules can only be understood aright if we place them within their proper whole; in particular this is a “pratical holism” which argues that understanding “involves explicit beliefs and hypotheses [that] can only be meaningful in specific contexts and against a background of shared practices”; and the paradox of private ostension (a private ostensive definition can be variously interpreted in every case) that Wittgenstein uses to deconstruct the notion of a “private language” because there is no such thing as a truly “private” language. As Wittgenstein traces these paradoxes he also refuses to allow the reader to escape by “subliming” names, logic, or rules (this fits well with what Wittgenstein does with the linguistic limits set by the Tractatus). Thus, throughout all of this, Wittgenstein develops his theory of “language games” which are the interweaving of human life and language — the term highlights the fact that speaking itself is an activity, a part of a form of life. What is especially interesting about Stern’s reading of the PI is that he refuses to identify Wittgenstein’s position with the position of any of the voices found within the text (the PI exists as a dialogue between [at least] two voices: the narrator and the interlocutor). Commentators have traditionally identified Wittgenstein with the narrator but Stern urges the reader not to do so, and thus argues that the tension between the Pyrrhonian approach to philosophy (which argues that all philosophy is nonsense) and the non-Phyrrhonian approach to philosophy (which argues that much of traditional philosophy is nonsense but philosophy itself can be saved) must remain [holy hell, writing some if these reviews is draining… does this make sense to anybody?].
10. The First to Throw The Stone: Take Responsibility for Prostitution a Policy Paper by Samaritana Transformation Ministries, Inc.
Samaritana is an agency that works with prostitutes in the Philippines. Within this policy paper its members (very briefly) sketch out the situation of prostitutes in the Philippines, the conditions of women in prostitution, the factors the reinforce prostitution, and then they provide their own perspective along with some recommendations. Although the situation may seem rather different from the North American context (for example, the airing of public ads that search for GROs [Guest Relation Officers!]) I am struck not by the differences but by the similarities. Perhaps prostitution is “the world’s oldest profession” because many of the conditions for prostitution are universal (i.e. the vulnerability of women and children, the vulnerability of the poor, the stigmatization of prostitutes which adds to the economic exploitation and psychological distress they experience [by the way, post-traumatic stress is more common in prostitutes than in Vietnam war veterans!], the inadequte government response, and the corruption that exists within governments, businesses, and law enforcement agencies).

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