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April Reviews

Mentioned in at least some capacity in this post: 8 Books (Of Grammatology; Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals; Unsettled Expectations; The Value of Homelessness; Welcome to the Microbiome; The Sexual Healing Journey; Three Novels be César Aira; At the Mountains of Madness & other novels); 3 Movies (Every Brilliant Thing; The Witch; and The Florida Project); 2 Documentaries (Jane; and Wild, Wild Country).


1. Of Grammatology by Jacques Derrida.


Of Grammatology is a founding text of deconstructionism, post-structuralism, and so-called post-modernism.  I have avoided it for years in part because it intimidated me when I was younger and then, when I got older, I mostly lost interest in Derrida because Derrideans seemed largely irrelevant to things I cared about.  You’ll meet Foucauldians and Bakuninists and Marxists and even Lacanians on the barricades, but I have yet to meet a Branch Derridean there (or a Deleuzian for that matter…).  They mostly seem interested in playing with words in ways that advance their brand status as, like, really smart, brah.  Their key identifying markers seem to be a sneering condescension towards others and living ever only to attain tenure (ditto for the Deleuzians).  However, a couple things changed over the years.  First, I met a few Derrideans who, although perhaps not particularly involved in the struggle, were really wonderful people (showing that all Derrideans are not, in fact, ostentatious pricks).  Second, I stopped being intimidated and so, feeling a return to philosophical theory rising in my blood, I figured I’d check this text out.  I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it and how much it reminded of the texts by Wittgenstein and Baudrillard that I started reading when I first fell in love with theory.  Essentially, if I understand him correctly, Derrida is arguing for an understanding of truth or meaning that is divorced from a rootedness within any kind of metaphysics or ontology but, instead, is always produced in the play of language or representation (which can be referred to as “writing” – and so the famous line, “il n’ya pas de hors-texte”).  He constructs his argument about these things by, for the most part, engaging Rousseau (because, well, France, ya know?).  Now, I tend to take this perspective for granted these days but recalling when this text was written, it’s easy to see why it was considered so ground-breaking.

2. Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals by Immanuel Kant.


Kant seems so reasonable and thoughtful and well-intentioned (in a duty-driven, not driven by a desire to come across as well-intentioned kind of way…), that it’s hard not to find his arguments compelling.  And, sure, he may do little more than paint himself into a corner but it’s such a well-constructed and sensible corner that it’s easy to see how other God-fearing, white European men might want to move in there with him.  Still, I can’t but help end up having some major beefs with Kant.  From his rooting of goodness in the will (and what it wills rather than, say, what it accomplishes), to the sharp line he wants to posit between duty and desire, to his emphasis upon fulfilling a universal law that really leaves little room for contextual considerations, there are all kinds of red flags here and connections to various manifestations of the condescending modern imperialism of the so-called West (even if Kant, in some ways, also paves the way for what became known as postmodernity… postmodernity, after all, continues to be well situated within contemporary forms of materialism).  Anyway, a thought provoking and interesting text, to be sure, and worth reading for those reasons.  It’s good to sometimes read texts like these in order to remind ourselves why we disagree with them.

3. Unsettled Expectations: Uncertainty, Land and Settler Decolonization by Eva Mackey.


In this text, Eva Mackey unpacks the “settled expectations” of settlers on Turtle Island, notes how they are essentially rooted in fantasies about ownership (which, in turn, are premised upon European philosophical, religious, and juridico-political traditions), and which, as a result, are fundamentally insecure.  However, because settlers long for certainty about these things (in order to feel secure in business investments, in order to feel “at home” on stolen land…), any reminder of the insecurity of their land claims or of the fact that, ultimately, they do not have any good grounds to claim sovereignty in these territories, paired with reminders that others (Indigenous peoples) do have good grounds to make those claims, is met with aggressive, fear-based, racialized othering of those who make them feel this discomfort and, in Mackey’s words, unsettle their expectations.  Therefore, by drawing on a few case studies related to the experiences of the Caldwell First Nation in what Canada calls Ontario, and the Onondaga Nation in what the USofA calls New York, and by looking at settlers who both resisted those nations when they made certain kinds of claims to land rights or title, while also looking at settlers who tried to ally themselves with those First Nations, Mackey proposes that settlers who wish to pursue right relationships with Indigenous peoples, who wish to view treaty as a verb and as a thing to be constantly re-evaluated, polished, and developed (and, here, her comments about what she learned about the two row wampum are really valuable), well, these settlers need to be willing to let go of certainty, and open themselves to both hearing new things and hearing in new ways (so, yeah, so much for Kant, eh?).

I really enjoyed this book.  I thought it did a great job of drawing out what the doctrine of terra nullius does and does not mean and how it has been used and what kind of fantasies undergird settler claims.  I also really appreciated the commentary on the two row wampum and what it means for living as treaty people.  To be honest, I feel a lot of uncertainty about discourses related to treaties.  This is so for a few reasons.  First, a lot of land on Turtle Island was never taken via treaty and remains unceded.  Second, a lot of treaties were forced onto people who were starved or slaughtered or otherwise forced into accepting them.  Third, even when elements of coercion or force are less obvious, the Canadian government never acted in good faith in treaty-making and has always tried to use treaties as a means of extinguishing Indigenous sovereignties.  So I haven’t necessarily been keen to recourse to treaties as a tool for finding ways forward.  I felt their value was rather limited.  However, what Mackey shows is how Indigenous understandings of treaty-making can guide us to ways of understanding treaties that truly are beneficial and positively transformative.  I am grateful for this teaching.

4. The Value of Homelessness: Managing Surplus Life in the United Stated by Craig Willse.


The best book I’ve read on the non-profit industrial complex since INCITE!’s collection of essays that coined the term, I thoroughly enjoyed Craig Willse’s Foucauldian analysis of the management of homelessness and surplus life in the USofA.  For Willse, the fundamental category that needs exploring is that of “housing.”  “Housing” refers to a particular congealment of forces “that mold and modulate bodies, individuals, and collectivities” within a “larger technical system for sorting and managing populations.”  As such, housing is “a technology for the organization and distribution of life, health, illness, and death… a house is a thing that makes live and lets die.”  Therefore, the state of being homeless neither places a person outside of this housing system nor is to be understood in strictly individualistic terms.  Rather, homelessness is best understood as a social phenomenon that is more accurately referred to as “housing deprivation.”  Housing deprivation produces “surplus life” (which is a reworking of Marxist notions of surplus labour, Foucault’s notion of biopower, and Agamben’s notion of the “bare life” of the homo sacer) which is then managed through the homelessness industry in order to “make literal room for the speculative urban consumer economics of neoliberal capital.”  Thus, Willse argues:

To be housed is to be disciplined into ways of living and being that allow for forms of security and protection afforded within a neoliberal economy.  This is an economy that extracts value from the abandonment of entire populations of people… social science and social work are the key technical mechanisms not only through which this abandonment takes place but through which it is coded as a form of help.

This, then, is what Willse unpacks in the book that follows (all those quotes are taken from the Introduction alone – see you can see why I got hella excited about reading it!).  I found Willse’s examination of mass data collection via integrated databases that are concerned not with people but with managing a specific population, as well as Willse’s comments on Housing First and how it is used to meet neoliberal goals to be particularly useful and compelling.  This is highly recommended reading for any associated with the poverty industry.

5. Welcome to the Microbiome: Getting to Know the Trillions of Bacteria In, On, and Around You by Rob DeSalle and Susan L. Perkins.


I’m finding popular level books related to ecology, bacteriology, biogenetics, and evolution to be really hit-and-miss.  It seems, at this level at least (because the texts geared towards academics have been consistently rich), the texts are more miss than hit.  Welcome to the Microbiome is a good example of that.  It takes a super-fascinating topic and presents it in such a cursory, stripped down, rushed through manner that, for anyone who has already dug into this topic, it manages to make it rather dull.  If you’re fifteen and looking for an entry-level work to start you into this subject, then maybe this book is worthwhile.  Otherwise, I’d give it a pass because there are a lot of far more interesting and far more detailed texts out there.

6. The Sexual Healing Journey: A Guide for Survivor’s of Sexual Abuse by Wendy Maltz.


Written directly for survivors of sexual violence, but recognizing that sexual violence is ubiquitous in our culture (at least one in five men have experienced sexual violence – although mostly when they were children – and, as far as I can tell, pretty much five in five women, trans*, or gender non-conforming people have been targets of sexual violence), I think pretty much everyone would benefit from reading this book.  If you personally haven’t experienced sexual violence, chances are you’ll engage in sexual activity with someone who has.  And this book gives critical insight into how to go about developing safe, consensual, and mutually pleasurable sexual relationships and perspectives wherein open and honest communication and shared vulnerability play a critical role.  Not every chapter may be relevant to everyone but everyone will probably get something from it.

7. Three Novels by César Aira by (surprise, surprise) César Aira.


So, the third short novel in this collection, the one about the literary conference, is a write-off and was a disappointment, in part, because the first two stories in this collection (“Ghosts” and “An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter”) were so great.  I have never read a ghost story like the one Aira tells here.  It captivated me.  Then the Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter burst forth like a mash-up of Cormac McCarthy, Sebald, Krasznahorkai, and Llosa and left my thrilled and longing for more.  Easily one of the best short stories I’ve ever read.

8. At the Mountains of Madness & other novels by H. P. Lovecraft.


Lovecraft, with his talk of “grotesque penguins” and “sinister vegetation” and the unspeakably terrifying geometric angles he proposes, is a uniquely creative voice.  On the one hand, it’s kind of campy and hilarious but, on the other hand, if we are really trying to speak about horrors that exceed human comprehension and that truly are outside of the domain of what we can know and imagine (how, exactly, does one bear witness to horrors that are too horrific for words?), then reaching in the way that Lovecraft does, makes a lot of sense.  I enjoyed reading this collection of short stories and novellas.  It was fun to finally get around to reading the foundational stories of the Cthulhu mythology and the related stories Lovecraft wrote about darkly magical happenings in New England.  It seems appropriate that Lovecraft would end up with a cult following – and only a cult following.  I reckon I’m a member now.


1. Every Brilliant Thing (2016) directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato.


Jonny Donahoe co-wrote and stars in this audience participation required one man play about the protagonists life, marked as it is by his mother’s multiple (and eventually fatal) suicide attempts, and his desire to keep first herself and then himself alive by composing a list of “every brilliant thing.”  It’s always curious watching a play as a film (at least it is to me) but Bailey and Barbato don’t mess things up too badly.  There are a few cut scenes that don’t make a lot of sense but mostly they don’t muck around with it too much and just let Donahoe and his audiences do their (brilliant) thing.  That said, I find it interesting that a lot of people refer to this film as a documentary because, in my digging, I didn’t find anything that suggested the content actually is “non-fiction” in the traditional sense.  The performance, of course, is very believable but that may speak more to Donahoe’s abilities as an actor than to “truth value” of the content.  Regardless, I found the movie to be very moving and, having recently had a recurrence of some of my own suicidal ideation (back in the fall), it was a powerful reminder of the lifelong impact that suicide has upon those who are left behind.  This is recommended viewing.

2. The Witch (2015) directed by Robert Eggers.


I came to The Witch with rather high expectations because I heard that it combined great cinematography with an intelligent plot and genuinely scary elements (a trio of factors that aren’t always easy to find in so-called “horror” movies but, when they are present, often produce really great films).  Unfortunately, the movie didn’t quite live up to the hype.  Granted, there’s no questioning Eggers’ ability to frame a shot but I think the part of the movie that is said to make it smart (the whole question about how we interpret what actually happened or didn’t happen or what is real or imaginary) has been overdone in this genre (and done much better elsewhere).  I also didn’t find anything scary about the movie… which is usually fine with me but, on this particular day, I was hoping to feel at least a wee bit freaked out.  Anyway, this is maybe a good gateway film for folks who are new to this genre and who aren’t sure if intelligent movies with elements of horror are something they want to check out or not but, otherwise, I’d give it a pass and turn to something like Pan’s Labyrinth or Raw for examples of films that do a far better job of accomplishing what The Witch sets out to do.

3. The Florida Project (2017) directed by Sean Baker.


Sean Baker is good at finding captivating people and then simply letting them be who they are in front of the camera.  The Florida Project, much like Tangerine, is impeccably cast and, truthfully, Willem Dafoe is actually the least interesting of all the actors.  A lot of viewers have commented on how heartbreaking and sad this film is but I think that it is incredibly beautiful.  Granted, the film is ultimately a tragedy and there is an underlying juxtaposition of wealth and poverty, the American dream and the American reality (given that the film is set in hotels just outside of Disney World), but I also feel like some of the sorrow people have expressed is misplaced and rooted in bourgeois sensibilities and moralizing about family and what is proper or improper behaviour for parents or children.  Some people may lament and think, “this kid is fucked, she doesn’t have a chance,” and, even as they judge the mother they may think they are doing so graciously (“this mom is fucked, she never had a chance”), but really I think this is a rather oppressive lens to bring to bear upon them because, I think, the kid and the mom are both wonderful and lovely and intelligent and strong.  And if anything is fucked it’s the world into which they have been thrown and the force of Law that is brought to bear upon their bodies and their relationship.  Great film.  Recommended viewing.


1. Jane (2017) directed by Brett Morgen.


I found Jane to be something of a curious documentary.  Certainly not the “go to” film for all things Jane Goodall, this film creates a story about Jane Goodall and her early work – largely out of footage found in National Geographic’s archives (filmed by her late husband, Hugo van Lawick), strung together to create a narrative, and dubbed over with jungle noises in order to create the illusion of a more immersive authentic experience – that feels part biopic, part love story, part nature show, but not wholly anything in particular except, perhaps, a bit of pandering to the fans, who will eagerly eat up shots they hadn’t seen before.  I don’t know… maybe I’m just not into Brett Morgan’s style (his last biopic, Cobain: Montage of Heck, didn’t really float my boat either although both that film and this one were hits with the critics).

2. Wild, Wild Country (2018) directed by Maclain and Chapman Way.


The buzz for this documentary series on Netflix is well deserved.  There are so many levels of analysis one could bring to bear on the themes embedded here that I reckon you could spend at least a week deconstructing and discussing everything.  Most striking, to me, was the settler sense of entitlement to land that they had robbed and raped and murdered to possess and which they then felt was theirs by some kind of divine right (see also Mackey’s book mentioned above).  This entitlement then produced a mass wave of outrage when Others considered non-American outsiders tried to lay claim to land by the means enshrined in American Law.  What becomes apparent is that the utility of the Law is its ability to meet the needs of rich, white settlers.  Those who try to use the letter of the Law against that group of people are missing the point and they will, inevitably, lose.  That said, not only are these Others then resisted in order to be driven out of the land but the religion these Others bring is taken as immoral and threatening and destroying it becomes a vital necessity even though the religion of those who engage in this resistance (i.e. Christianity) is equally foreign, and far more violent, than the religion of the devotees who move into their neighbourhood.

Another thing that struck me about this series was the way in which dominant populations completely and willfully and forcefully misunderstand others, entrench themselves in this misunderstanding, and then drive others into being what they misunderstood them to be.  Thus, a peaceful group is driven into armed self-defense and from there, well, into even more dangerous actions.  My people truly do make the world, and others, into our own image and this is devastating and fatal.

Also, last but not least, don’t trust any religious leader who loves wealth and luxury.  Actually, that probably goes for any so-called leader in any context.  Fuck those guys.  But don’t fuck this series.  It’s great.  Enjoy it.

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