in Book Reviews, Uncategorized

October Reviews

Discussed in this post: 8 Books (Modernism and Fascism; Anders Breivik and the Rise of Islamophobia; The Second Sex; Gender Trouble; The Spinning Magnet; The End; New Poems; and rest in the mourning); 4 Movies (Hereditary; Marrowbone; Suntan; and The Edge of Seventeen); and 3 Documentaries (People of the Po Valley; The Dawn Wall; and Generation Wealth).


1. Modernism and Fascism: The Sense of a Beginning under Mussolini and Hitler by Roger Griffin.


Given the way things have been going in our world, I’ve been thinking a lot about fascism.  It was never something that went away complete – the punks bashed the fascists out of the local music scene in the ‘90s, we bashed the fascists off Commercial Drive in Vancouver about 8 years ago… – but it has certainly been resurfacing in powerful ways over the last few years. I was never much into WWII films or histories but I’ve been watching a lot of documentaries relating to fascism, its rise, its outcomes, how it was experienced by various folks in various communities or contexts, and so on (the documentaries of Marcel Ophuls are my favourite in this genre, but Claude Lanzmann and Alain Resnais also come to mind immediately).  I’ve also been reading stuff by antifascist organizers and scholars.  But I’ve been looking for a text that would help me situate fascism more broadly within the cultural and ideological dynamics of so-called Western Civilization.  What does fascism arise out of?  What makes it appealing?  Why does it persist? Roger Griffin’s book goes a long way to answering these questions.  I reckon it is the best thing I have read on fascism thus far.

Essentially, Griffin argues, fascism arises quite logically out of modernism.  This position is contrary to what many scholars have asserted regarding the seeming anti-modernism of fascism (its return to archaic beliefs, to seemingly primordial motifs like blood and soil, and so on), and so in order to make this case, and given that both “modernism” and “fascism” are highly contested terms, Griffin describes modernism as follows:

MODERNISM is a generic term for a vast array of heterogeneous individual and collective initiatives undertaken in Europeanized societies in every sphere of cultural production and social activity from the mid-nineteenth century onwards.  Their common denominator lies in the bid to achieve a sense of transcendent value, meaning, or purpose despite Western culture’s progressive loss of a homogeneous value system and overarching cosmology (nomos) caused by the secularizing and disembedding forces of modernization.  The modernists’ rejection of or revolution against contemporary modernity was shaped by innate predispositions of the human consciousness and mythopoeic faculty to create culture,  united by  a shared culture.  All these are vital to providing a refuge from the potentially life-threatening fear of a personal death bereft of any sort of transcendence, even an extensively humanized, secularized, and historicized one.

Modernism can assume an exclusively artistic expression, often involving extreme experimentation with new aesthetic forms conceived to express glimpses of a ‘higher reality’ that throw into relief the anomy and spiritual bankruptcy of contemporary history (‘epiphanic modernism’).  Alternatively, it can focus on the creation of a new ‘world’, either through the capacity of art and thought to formulate a vision capable of revolutionizing society as a culture and praxis that will ultimately transform not just art but humankind itself, or at least a chosen segment of it (programmatic modernism).

The modernist search to counteract the threat of nihilism first took shape once Western myths of progress lost their credibility and modernity entered a protracted period of liminoidality. This process was intensified by the growing temporalization of history since the Enlightenment and further accelerated by the social disruptions and rise of materialism promoted by the industrialization of society under new capitalist classes.  This caused ever more of Europe’s avant-garde artists and intellectuals to construct modernity discursively as ‘decadence’, and to assume the mission either of replenishing the aquifers of transcendence that were rapidly running dry, or of providing the inspiring vision needed to create an alternative healthy modernity.  Using an extreme variety of values and techniques, modernists thus sought to bring closure to the psychologically distressing liminoid conditions of contemporary reality, and offer solutions for, or at least life-changing diagnoses of, the deepening cultural and spiritual crisis of the West.  This crisis was experienced primarily within creative elites before 1914, and more widely, though less reflexively, by the general public after the cataclysm of the First World War.

True to the logic of ‘mazeway resynthesis’ found in all revitalization movements, the hallmark of modernism in both its epiphanic and programmatic permutations is a tendency to syncretism, so that conflicting values and principles, sometimes drawn from quite different sphere of society and history, are combine in the search for the founding principles and constitute values needed for a new world to be constructed out of the decadence or collapse of the old one.  Within some variants of programmatic modernism this can lead to the paradoxical appropriation of elements found in the premodern, mythic, ‘reactionary’ past to serve the revolutionary task of creating a new order in a new future.  A second paradox is that some forms of aesthetic modernism find a source of transcendence in the artistic exploration and expression of decadence rather than in focusing on utopian remedies to it.  However, even though some forms may seem concerned with reviving tradition or conveying a sense of cultural decay, its overall momentum is futural and optimistic. In whatever medium it operates it works towards – or at least points to the need for – the erection of a new canopy of mythic meaning and transcendence over the modern world, a new beginning.

With this established, Griffin describes fascism in this way:

FASCISM is a revolutionary species of political modernism originating in the early twentieth century whose mission is to combat the allegedly degenerative forces of contemporary history (decadence) by bringing about an alternative modernity and temporality (a ‘new order’ and a ‘new era’) based on the rebirth, or palingenesis, of the nation.  Fascists conceive the nation as an organism shaped by historic, cultural, and in some cases, ethnic and hereditary factors, a mythic construct incompatible with liberal, conservative, and communist theories of society.  The health of this organism they see undermined as much by the principles of institutional and cultural pluralism, individualism, and globalized consumerism promoted by liberalism as by the global regime of social justice and human equality identified by socialism in theory as the ultimate goal of history, or by the conservative defence of ‘tradition’.

The fascist process of national regeneration demands radical measures to create or assert national vitality and strength in the spheres of art, culture, social cohesion, the economy, politics, and foreign policy.  In the acute crisis conditions which prevailed in Europe after 1918, fascists saw the natural vehicle for this regeneration, once a critical mass of popular support was achieved, in a nationalist movement with both a mass base and paramilitary cadres that in the transition to the new nation would use propaganda and violence to create the new national community.  The charisma of fascist leaders depended on their success in performing the role of a modern propheta who offered his followers a new ‘mazeway’ (world-view) to redeem the nation from chaos and lead it into a new era, one that drew on a mythicized past to regenerate the future.

Fascism can thus be interpreted on one level as an intensely politicized form of the modernist revolt against decadence.  Its modernist dynamics in the inter-war period are manifested in the importance it attached to culture as a site of total social regeneration, its emphasis on artistic creativity as the source of vision and higher values, its adherence to the logic of ‘creative destruction’ (which in extreme instances could foster genocidal persecutions of alleged racial enemies), its conviction that a superseded historical epoch was dying and a new one was dawning, and the virulence of its attacks on materialism, individualism, and the loss of higher values allegedly brought about by modernity.  They also condition the way it operates as a modern revitalization movement, the extreme syncretism of its ideology, and its draconian acts designed to bring about the cleansing, regeneration, and sacralization of the national community, and create a new fascist man.

Constructed in this way the distinctiveness of fascism can be encapsulated in the shorthand definition: ‘fascism is a form of programmatic modernism that seeks to conquer political power in order to realize a totalizing vision of national or ethnic rebirth.  Its ultimate end is to overcome the decadence that has destroyed a sense of communal belonging and drained modernity of meaning and transcendence and usher in a new era of cultural homogeneity and health.’

These are really rich descriptions, and Griffin goes on to explore them in very valuable ways, looking closely at both Mussolini’s regime and Nazism.  However, I think Griffin’s descriptions also help to clarify three things: (1) why fascism is rising again (especially in the territories colonized by the United States of America); (2) why fascism has always found mass support among Christians (who, ever since losing hegemonic control over society, have always related modernism to decadence); and (3) why a “fascist creep” (as per Alexander Reid Ross) can take place within the radical Left (given the anti-consumerism, anti-capitalism elements that can exist within fascism).  Furthermore, two additional and very troubling questions arise: first, how much is our current neoliberal discourse and devotion to “public health” indebted to the vision and goals of fascism? Second, how much are any efforts to invest life with a death-transcending meaning vulnerable to fascist elements?  Much food for thought here.  This is very highly recommended reading.

2. Anders Breivik and the Rise of Islamophobia by Sindre Bangstad.


This was a spontaneous buy at the local library book sale.  I thought it might give some interesting context to both my current research into fascism and my completion of Knausgaard’s series, but it ended up being far more relevant than I first thought.  What struck me with staggering force was the extent to which Breivik sounds exactly like Jordan Peterson and his groupies (or others associated more generally with “men’s rights,” the “alt-right,” or even Conservatism/a lot of white people in general these days).  I believe one could put the words of Breivik and of Peterson side by side and it would be impossible to tell the difference – they sound identical.  Of course, Breivik largely repeats what was being circulated in online forums for neo-fascists, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and militant anti-State, anti-capitalist right wingers, so it’s not like Peterson has to be directly inspired by Breivik (although I don’t find it difficult to imagine Peterson admiring Breivik for putting the ideology into action via “propaganda by the deed”).  Breivik, in other words, is not an anomaly.  He was simply more courageous than the men who currently only talk shit online but, fuck, who knows what they will be capable of in the future.

(Tangentially, and here one can see how these themes overlap with a general toxic masculinity, there were also moments when Breivik sounds more like Elliot Rodger and the Incels he has inspired – such as the man in Toronto who ran over women in a van or the man in Florida who recently murdered people at a Yoga Studio – like when Breivik talks about the need to kill women, even if they are beautiful, given that they represent a large percentage of those who embrace multiculturalism in Norway and throughout Europe.)

That said, it was interesting to learn more about the rise of Islamophobia in Norway.  This went a long way to helping me understand why fascism was also popping up there.  Here in Canada, Lefties tend to glorify and romanticize the Scandinavian countries (much like Canada is glorified and romanticized by Lefties in the USofA) and so we have trouble making sense of the rise of hard Right parties or neo-Nazi street gangs there (much like citizens of the USofA have trouble understanding the genocidal settler colonialism and very deeply embedded racism of white Canadians).  Bangstad’s book helped me make sense of it all.  I enjoyed it a great deal.

3. The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir.


Continuing to work my way through some of the classic texts of feminist theory, it made sense to pick of Beauvoir next.  It troubled me to discover just how relevant her observations about society (and men especially) continue to be.  Granted, some things that Beauvoir believes would be critical to the emancipation of women have taken place (notably, women’s ability to earn an income – although, as intersectional scholars and community organizers have repeatedly noted, this has not changed as much or for as many people as a lot of rich, white women like to suggest when they focus narrowly upon themselves and their peers), and yet one discovers a world where women continue to be oppressed and, in fact, where violent, repressive masculinity is on the rise (and, despite Michael Kimmel’s belief that this is a symptom of the death throes of toxic masculinity, one cannot help but wonder how much longer and how much stronger these throes have to get before we see this not so much as a general death as a general resurrection).  Of course, there are other points where one might argue with Beauvoir – and feminist queer theorists like Judith Butler do a good job of that – but I think there is still a lot to be gained by reading this text.  Highly recommended reading.

4. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity by Judith Butler.


Sometimes I’m puzzled by the ways in which theorists who are so talented at drawing out the ideological nature of, well, every( )thing, then go on to treat some of the most discredited theories in a very serious way.  So, yes, Butler does a very great job in this text of deconstructing gender and relating it to performance (rather than being a fundamental part of one’s being or whatever), and she does an equally great job of showing how positing a “sex” behind, beyond, or outside of gender is an equally ideologically-motivated and maintained move, which then allow “sex” to become the “natural” (but not really) prediscursive basis for gendering the world… but then she spends a bunch of time on some people (notably, Freud) who hardly seem worth it (actually, I’m pretty consistently amazed by the attention given to Freud by continental philosophers – Freud really only seems useful or interesting if we use him to say something he never intended [which I think Žižek does all the time] but, if that’s the case, why bother with him at all?).

I have been thinking a lot about the implications of Butler’s work – not only in general but what the implications are for a cishet man such as myself – and I have gone back and forth on this.  It is, of course, not on Butler to work this out for folks like me.  The onus for that is on me.  Generally, I think Butler’s work helps to make space for queer, trans*, intersexed, and two spirited people who have been consistently othered and denied space.  And I like how she brings elements of playful celebration (as in drag) into resistance.  All resistance doesn’t have to be exhausting – it can also be exhilarating and joyful and a lot of fun (especially when existence is resistance).  Furthermore, lest she be accused of some kind of theoretical idealism or detachment, I think it important to note how Butler emphasizes that this kind of work is always performed within (and against) the constraints imposed by that which we have already brought to be in the world (I missed this in my earlier readings of Butler when I became concerned that part of her attraction to men like me was that, by annihilating both sex and gender, she potentially gave us an easy out for the responsibility and accountability we carry as men – indeed, I was worried this was part of her appeal but I think a more careful second reading puts this concern to rest).  But I’m still working this out.  I’m curious to hear what others think.

5. The Spinning Magnet: The Force that Created the Modern World and Could Destroy It by Alanna Mitchell.


I found it interesting that many of the people who were keen to reject Insane Clown Posse (ICP) because of the misogynistic violence they promoted (and I, personally, found their music completely repulsive), were quick to mock ICP when ICP showed a more vulnerable side or began to express an openness to the beauty and wonder that is found in the world.  Granted, it was a bit of a shock to see killer clowns who rap about snuff-related fantasies switch to rapping about the long necks of giraffes, rainbows, and magnets, but surely this is the kind of transition that the critics would want to encourage?  Instead, ICP were greeted with considerable mockery – as if being filled with wonder about what occurs in the world is a sign of a backwards anti-scientism, as if science can explain electromagnetism, as if scientists are not also filled with wonder and unanswered questions – as though, rather than welcoming their more tender side, the critics wanted to drive ICP back to being the very people whom the critics hated.  It’s a bit of a sad and strange dynamic – although surely not as sad as strange as discovering that ICP were secretly Evangelical Christians trying to infiltrate pop culture so that they could suddenly spring the Gospel on their masses of fans (for more on that, see this jaw-dropping piece of music journalism).  However, just as I owe my initial interest in fractals to Elsa in Disney’s Frozen (see the lyrics to “Let It Go”… well known to parents everywhere… but that song got me asking, “what the heck are fractals?” and then upon realizing they are lines of infinite length contained within finite boundaries my mind kind of exploded…), I began to ask questions about electromagnetism after ICP were so thoroughly mocked for asking about magnets.  What they heck is going on with magnets anyway?  Having begun to understand the fundamental role of electromagnetism in cellular biochemistry, and having played a bit with understanding the role of electromagnetism within the four universal forces (which actually all may end up boiling down to electromagnetism), I got curious about the role it plays in the formation of our planet.  So, Alanna Mitchell’s book seemed like a good place to start.  It’s a good initial primer about how the earth functions as a magnet and what produces this force here and what the consequences of this (notably the switching of magnetic poles that occurs every now and again… and may or may not be long overdue and starting to happen now… with rather serious consequences for a global market that relies so heavily on technology that will be incapacitated by a weakened or significantly altered magnetic field).  I enjoyed the book a fair bit, although I wish she had spent more time talking about electromagnetism proper.  I’d like to learn more about electromagnetism.

6. The End (My Struggle Vol. 6) by Karl Ove Knausgaard.


So, the final volume of Knausgaard’s series breaks down roughly as follows: four hundred pages of grocery shopping and obsessively checking emails, four hundred pages of Hitler (bracketed by an exegesis of some of Celan’s poems, and coupled with tangents on all kinds of things where K. comes across a bit like a stoner pontificating about God while smoking a bowl and watching cartoons), and four hundred pages about his wife’s mental health breakdown.  I found the first third increasingly dull, the second third intermittently mundane, frustrating, and captivating, and the final third as good as the other volumes in the series.

Knausgaard’s reflections on Hitler – which serve, in part, to show how integral K.’s title is to his whole project – have probably drawn the most attention from critics.  For those who have spent a lot of time around others whom society has generally branded as “monsters,” or who have really internalized what Arendt said about the banality of evil, I don’t think there are any profound new insights to be found here.  In fact, given K.’s own rightwing leanings, I find the way he frames his remarks about Hitler with analyses of Celan’s poetry to be… suspicious.  This framing also seems to undercut his own efforts to say what it is not really permissible to say, even though, as K. rightly observes, people think or do such impermissible things all the time (or, perhaps this framing implicitly illustrate how he struggles to attain this goal). That said, while I am quite open to realizations like “good people aren’t all good” and “bad people aren’t all bad” and “most people are mostly products of their environment” and “othering often isn’t useful or even honest,” and while I have often advocated for such things myself while working with gang members or sex workers or pimps or people experiencing poverty or suffering under an all-encompassing settler colonialism, I am increasingly concerned about the ways in which famous men empathize with brutally violent men.  One thinks, for example, of Will Sheff’s presentation of the yogurt shack killers in “Westfall,” or how Sufjan Stevens identifies with John Wayne Gacy Jr. in his song by the same name, and one begins to wonder is some kind of “himpathy” (as per Kate Manne) is operative here.  After all, one can recognize that everyone lives in some kind of moral grey zone, and that so-called good people can do bad things and so-called bad people can do good things, and this complicates the binaries we like to construct to simplify the world and comfort ourselves, while simultaneously refusing to identify with a John Wayne Gacy Jr. or a Hitler.  And yet, Knausgaard would probably interject, what Hitler shows is that masses of people are very, very willing to do exactly this.  It took the Hitler cult, the ways in which people tried to identify with Hitler, the ways in which people felt like Hitler was speaking from and to the core of their beings, to make Nazism what it was.  What Hitler reveals is that very many of us – perhaps most of us – are quite willing to be John Wayne Gacy if circumstances allow.  This might be true but it is not true for all of us.  The problem, and this, I think, is what Will Sheff and Sufjan Stevens wants to bring out, is that many who are the most vocal in disavowing their similarity to violent men are those most inclined to Other others and then act violently towards them, all the while assuming their own righteousness. But, I am increasingly convinced, one can be aware of these pitfalls, and still draw a line in terms of those with whom one is willing to identify.  In fact, given the current rise of neo-fascism, I think this kind of line drawing is increasingly important.

7. New Poems by Rilke.


It has been awhile since I read any Rilke and I was excited to find this collection but it did not resonate with me nearly as much as the Duino Elegies or Uncollected Poems.  I honestly don’t have much to say about this collection.  It didn’t leave any kind of impression on me.

8. rest in the mourning by r. h. Sin.


So, I found this book for fifty cents and thought, meh, I’ll give Sin one more shot.  But, yeah, I stand by my previous analysis.  Sin provides us with a good example of how the “nice guy” who loves a gal who is being abused and wants her to be free (specifically, free to be in a  loving sexual relationship with him), is actually the reverse side of the coin of the physically abusive and controlling boyfriend.  I find that his poems exemplify a lot of the norms and values of patriarchy as they are encoded in romanticized and seemingly altruistic gendered dynamics.  Sin, in other words, isn’t so much writing love poems as he is spinning webs. It’s too bad because Sin has a fair bit of talent (which is what make the webs so captivating, of course).


1. Hereditary (2018) directed by Ari Aster.


This is one of the films I was looking forward to most in 2018 and it didn’t disappoint me.  It’s a film that’s hard to classify.  Certainly, it is easiest to describe it as a horror movie but it is much more than the kind of horror movie one would expect from Hollywood.  It’s intelligent, not easily predictable, well-acted, and well shot.  And while there are moments where one feels considerable tension or even horror, these are not the defining feelings of the film.  There is, of course, a subtext running through the film that is common to psychological thrillers (i.e. is the horror “real” or is it a symptom of the protagonist(s) mental illness?), and that subtext is presented well here although, generally, I think it has been used in enough movies to not have too much punch these days.  Instead, I think the punch is found in how various family members grieve a very deep loss and how this grieving affects their relationships with each other.  Certainly this, too, is not a new theme in film, but I think Aster brings a fairly unique combination of elements to his presentation to make it feel like something interesting and different.

2. Marrowbone (2017) directed by Sergio G. Sanchez.


I felt like Sergio Sanchez’s prior work, The Orphanage, was a very near miss in terms of being a smart and suspenseful thriller, and so when I heard the praise for Marrowbone, I thought I’d check it out.  The plot is very smart and, when you think you have it figured out, you probably don’t, and I enjoyed that, but I felt like the staging and the acting didn’t live up to the plot (I also thought it was less scary than The Orphanage and that disappointed me a little).  Another near miss, I reckon.

3. Suntan (2016) directed by Argyris Papadimitropoulos.


Few people make devastatingly hopeless films like the Greeks (and, hey, Greece hasn’t been doing so well for a while so it kind of makes sense).  Papadimitropoulos’ Suntan is no exception.  It’s a terrifying movie that knows that, really, to creep the fuck out of most people, all you need is a man who loves a woman who doesn’t love him back in the same way.  This is what happens in Suntan, when a lonely aging doctor falls in love with a hedonistic young female on a small Greek island that is flooded with tourists every summer.  As with most Greek Weird Wave films, the scenes are impeccably staged and shot and the sense of dread builds through an increasingly excruciating series of painfully awkward, then scary, then terrifying (and physically painful) moments.  It’s a well done film but not for everyone – I would suggest that middle aged men check it out and hopefully learn the lesson that, hey, guess what, what women want is for you to leave them alone.

4. The Edge of Seventeen (2016) directed by Kelly Fremon Craig.


Last month, I enjoyed Eighth Grade quite a bit and I heard it mentioned in the same breath as The Edge of Seventeen, another “coming of age” debut film, and so I gave it a watch.  I enjoyed it – although not as much as Eighth Grade.  Everything wraps up a bit too tidily for my liking these days but it’s good to have those kinds of stories in our repertoire as well.  Especially these days.  Sometimes it’s nice for nice people to just be nice (and not secretly mean) and happy people to just be happy (and not secretly tortured) and loving people to just be loving (and not secretly selfish).  And sometimes it’s nice to see sad people comforted, instead of comfortable people discomforted, especially when those people are still young and you think, yeah, would that we could all find ways of loving our way out of our sorrows.  Also, Woody Harrelson really steals the show here.  I appreciate him more and more all the time.


1. People of the Po Valley (1947) directed by Michelangelo Antonioni.


An extremely short doc, (only 11 minutes), by a Director who went on to be quite famous, I wanted to mention it here because it’s a fascinating glimpse into a world that no longer exists.  People in Italy living in reed houses and on boats.  Wonderful.  Might as well watch it for yourself: see here.

2. The Dawn Wall (2017) directed by Josh Lowell and Peter Mortimer.


Along with her love of the wilderness, Jess (who is currently on a solo camping trip in Algonquin) has a love of climbing.  She suggested we go and see this film and I’m glad she did.  The focus is on a pair of climbers who attempt, for the first time, to do a free climb directly up the Dawn Wall of El Capitan in Yosemite (after many years of obsessing and prepping!).  The shots are spectacular and it’s one that is worth seeing on a big screen if you get the chance.  Additionally, one of the climbers, Tommy Caldwell, who is quite renowned and holds a number of records in the climbing world despite having cut off part of a really essential climbing finger, has a bit of an unexpected backstory – at the age of 22, he and a few other climbers (including his future wife) were kidnapped by freedom fighters/terrorists/whatevers (but, essentially, scary violent men), in Kyrgyzstan and they only escaped after a number of days when Tommy pushed one of the men off a mountain.  Jaaaaysus!  Anyway, a good film with good people overcoming difficulties in beautiful locations (and the beauty of those locations is, itself, a part of the overcoming).  What more can one ask for?

3. Generation Wealth (2018) directed by Lauren Greenfield.


Having really enjoyed The Queen of Versailles, I was very excited about Greenfield’s retrospective documentary about her career photographing very rich people and what this has led her to conclude about American society.  However, the presentation struck me as rather confused and scattered and lacking much critical depth.  It was quite disappointing.  So, hey, if Nietzsche warned us about staring too long into the abyss because the abyss stares back, perhaps the warning we should take from Greenfield is that we must also be careful about staring too long into, I don’t know, something really shallow (maybe a creek?), because that really shallow thing also stares back.  But, of course, even this kind of criticism about pop culture is commonplace and part of what I find fun about engaging with pop (reality TV, ftw!) is digging around in the creek until it becomes an abyss.  And on that note, I think I’ll go peruse Rich Kids of Instagram.

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