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June Reviews

Having completed my massive Paul project, I went on a bit of a bender.  Woefully inadequately discussed in this post: 8 Books (Remnants of Auschwitz; The Art of Cruelty; A Brief History of Infinity; The Girl from the Metropol Hotel; There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby; the princess saves herself in this one; the witch doesn’t burn in this one; and How I Became a Nun); 4 Movies (Revanche; Anomalisa; Carnival of Souls; and Werewolf); and 2 Documentaries (Into the Inferno; and Under the Sun).


1. Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive by Giorgio Agamben.


Foucault is famous for arguing that biopower, at it was exercised in older, territorial models of sovereignty, “let live and made die” but that the deterritorialization of sovereignty in the world of global capitalisim both causes and facilitates a reversal of that aphorism so that sovereignty now “makes live and lets die.”  However, after Auschwitz, and the camps that he sees as central to the composition and being of the contemporary State, Agamben argues that biopower is now exercised in a form of sovereignty that which “makes survive.”  Here, as the experience of the so-called “Muselmänner” in the Lagers demonstrates, living and dying cease to be opposite poles, but the bare life of the inhuman thing is drawn out of the once thriving, living human being and then used until disposed of.  To live ethically, then, according to Agamben, is to find ways of bearing witness to this through testimony – which is the way in which the witness speaks of the unspeakable and, by doing so, presents the unspeakable as the lacuna in the heart of the testimony (Agamben thus rejects the position of those who say that Auschwitz is too horrific to be put into words, because this position, itself, feeds into the goals of the Nazis who always wanted Auschwitz to never exist in words) – and through an examination of the archive which contains everything that accompanies the moment of bearing witness that is not recorded in words.

Given how significant Agamben thinks the camps are to contemporary nation States (one need only think of recent actions on the borders America drew on the world to see these camps again coming to light, although such prisons for immigrants have been present all over the world for years, including in the territories in Canada [holler to the peeps in No One Is Illegal who have been trying to draw our attention to this for ages], and European Nations are no strangers to ignoring the bodies of migrant children that have washed up on their beaches or that are enclosed on the island of Lampedusa), I have been thinking a fair bit about this notion of biopower and its desire to reduce living to surviving, speaking to silence, and the human to the inhuman where life is experienced as death and death is experienced as life (and where, I might add, Arbeit macht frei).  In resistance to this, I have often focused on themes of human flourishing, or thriving, or living life abundantly (decoupled from the goals and models proposed by social workers, medical officers, the police, or politicans), when I have engaged in community building or organizing with people experiencing oppression, and whom the oppressors had tried to reduce to bare survival.  What we need, if we are to do something about oppression qua oppression, is not better health services or more chartable giving or whatever – what we really need is a politics, a biopower, devoted to human flourishing.

2. The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning by Maggie Nelson.


I am rarely so forcefully reminded of the inadequacy of my so-called reviews as when I try to write something short about Maggie Nelson’s work.  This book is one of the most exciting ethical texts I have read in any genre (and, make no mistake about it, this is a book about ethics… morals even… and about people as beings with moral agency).  Looking especially at the use of cruelty in art – especially highbrow, avant-garde art, but also involving pop culture – Nelson explores the aestheticization of violence, the effort to transcend the spectacular element of art in order to transform it into something… more, and how this sometimes succeeds and why it frequently fails, and where it can be really confusing, and when it’s a lot of bullshit, and when it’s really stimulating, and she questions and rages and takes a stand and sometimes doesn’t, but, as with all of her work, this is well worth reading (if you can stomach the content under discussion).  Discussions about violence in pop culture or art are a dime a dozen and arguments and ah-ha moments have been repeated ad nauseam on all sides but Nelson really does bring profound insight to this subject matter and really helped me sort through some of my own thinking, and feelings of attraction and repulsion, when it comes to some of these things.  I will continue to read everything she publishes.

3. A Brief History of Infinity: The Quest to Think the Unthinkable by Brian Clegg.


I stumbled onto this book while thinking that I maybe wanted to read something a little more oriented around the maths, because, while it played with numbers here and there, it looked like something I could comprehend.  I did comprehend it, but I think I was hoping for something a wee bit more technical and something a wee bit less “short biographies of famous mathematicians.”  I think, maybe, what I need to do is pick up one of those books about fractals that I saw in that used book store the other day.  I’ve never really gotten over fractals, ever since Ruby incessantly singing songs from Frozen got me to look into them.  A line of infinite length, contained within a finite space.  WTF.

4. The Girl from the Metropol Hotel by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.


Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is a writer famous in Russia for her fairy tales (one of the fairy tales she wrote airs every year on Russian TV), but she is little known or translated outside of her country.  Given my own love of fairy tales (and Russian literature), I was pretty excited to learn about her and her work.  This book is her account of her childhood up until early adulthood and it’s not hard to see how she ended up becoming an author of modern fairy tales.  The title itself has a double meaning.  Petrushevskaya was related to some key members of the October revolution (several of whom were astonishingly brilliant) and so, after 1917, her family moved into the Metropol Hotel along with other central Bolsheviks.  However, Lenin ended up identifying many of Petrushevskaya’s family members as “enemies of the people” and so she, her mother, aunt, and grandparents ended up fleeing to poverty and she ended up spending most of her formative years on the streets.  Here, then, is the second meaning of her title – a “girl from the Metropol Hotel” was Muscovite slang for a sex worker, because of the women who worked out of the bar at that hotel.  Although, as far as the reader knows, Petrushevskaya never engaged in sex work, the constant threat of sexual violence (and several close calls) lingers over the entirety of her childhood.  Still, as in the fairy tales she loves and writes, she escapes… mostly.  Given this life, surrounded by historic figures and critical moments on the global stage, Petrushevskaya’s simple prose serves her well.  I enjoyed this book quite a lot.

5. There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.


When Ludmilla Petrushevskaya was sent to boarding school as a child (because she proved to be too unmanageable after her time on the streets), she had trouble fitting in but would make friends by telling scary stories at night to those who slept in the same room as her.  I’m glad that she never stopped telling stories, and that English readers like me are able to start working through her books.  She certainly has a way with titles.  As with all fairy tale collections, I find hers to be a bit hit and miss.  Some are great, some are ho-hum.  She certainly draws out the elements of horror that are common to a lot of old folk and fairy tales.  A number of her pieces actually reminded me of a collection of Scottish ghost stories I found at my grandparents’ and read one weekend when I was very young (and regretted for many nights after that).  I’m still figuring out why I’m so drawn to fairy tales.  I think it has to do with the ways in which they (especially when taken as a collection) combine elements of both horror and wonder and don’t think it’s necessary to cut out the one in order to do justice to the other.  But I think there’s more to it than that.  I think Einstein was onto something when he said, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales.  If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales,” but why this is the case still puzzles me.

6. the princess saves herself in this one by amanda lovelace.


I stumbled and fell into amanda lovelace’s poems while standing in a bookstore and when I came to again, I was gasping.  She now ranks among my favourite poets – Warsan Shire, Rilke, Eliot – all of whom stagger me and leave me overflowing with gratitude and brokenheartedness and sorrow and wonder all mixed up together.  They put words to things in my heart that I do not know how to express.  the princess saves herself in this one, is lovelace’s first collection and it is very much a reckoning of and with the solitude and abuse she experienced as a child and then with an intimate partner.  It’s a coming of age story for a child who grew up closer to books and fairy tales than friends and companions (although the friends and companions to arrive later on, thank goodness) and, despite our differences, I can identify with a great deal of it.  It is profoundly moving and highly recommended.

7. the witch doesn’t burn in this one by amanda lovelace.


In this, the second volume of her “the women are some kind of magic series” (the first volume being the princess saves herself in this one), lovelace engages in a more sustained analysis and refusal of patriarchy and rape culture.  Her cleverness remains apparent throughout, not only in the content but in the ways in which she frames her texts or juxtaposes them with other texts, but some of these poems still felt a bit more cliché or repetitive than those in her previous collection.  Not to say that there isn’t a lot of outstanding work in this volume – because there is – it’s just a slightly different kind of thing than the one that came before.  But still recommended reading.

8. How I Became a Nun by César Aira.


I think the most interesting thing about this autobiographical text is the way in which César Aira casually and consistently identifies himself as female throughout, while every other character in the story refers to him as male.  Curiously, Mario Bellatin also becomes female in the third vignette of his autobiographical book, The Large Glass, and nowhere does his text consider this worthy of comment or explanation.  It is what it is.  I like that.

“Autobiography” clearly means something different to these authors than it does to the average North American reader, given that Bellatin inhabits three entirely different characters in his autobiography and that Aira dies as a child at the end of his.  What then does it mean to write autobiographically?  If one concludes (as I have), that language is an ideological overcoding of the nameless _________ that some refer to as “the Real,” and if one also concludes (as I have) that all writing is, therefore, both fiction and propaganda, leading to the equally logical conclusion that all Truth is simply the product of language games when they are played according to the rules established by those who are able to dominate and control discursive hierarchies of power/knowledge, then I think the question for the person writing autobiographically is not “how do I write truthfully?” but “how do I write honestly?”  Honesty can exist in a world without some kind of outdated notion of “Universal Truth” because honestly is not so much propositional as it is affective and speaks to the experience of fidelity to the Event that is one’s life.  Hence, Bellatin can honestly be three entirely different people and Aira can honestly have drowned in a giant sealed tub of ice cream as a child, even though these presentations violate the law of non-contradiction (quantum physics also violates that law… get over it).  Indeed, given the violent ends to which discursive practices of Truth are put, quite often lying is the most honest thing a person can do if one hopes to live in a way that is both Life-affirming and Life-giving.  So cheers to the honest liars.  Keep fighting the good fight.


1. Revanche (2008) directed by Götz Spielmann.


I almost shut this movie off after the first ten minutes because it seemed like a pretty standard gangster flick about a hard-luck dude, who impresses an organized crime boss due to his work ethic, but who falls for the same (possibly trafficked) sex worker as the boss in the brothel owned by the boss.  But, of course, the sex worker is in love with the hard-luck dude so the it’s a matter of if they will escape, if they boss will catch on, or track them down if they do get away, and at what cost will freedom come and all that.  I figured I’d already seen enough movies like this before. But then, within the next twenty minutes, the couple have escaped, the lady has died, the organized crime boss is completely out of the picture (never to return), and the hard-luck dude is cutting wood on his grandpa’s farm – one property over from the impotent cop who accidentally killed the lady, and the cop’s wife (who really wants a baby).  So, sure, one can see how that storyline is going to develop, but the heart and soul of this story is a meditation on revenge, what that might look like, how it might be possible, what it might satisfy, how one is to determine blame, and what that means in the real world of a traumatized cop, his lonely wife, a hard-luck dude, and a very old grandfather who quietly steals every scene in which he appears.  This movie stayed with me for longer than I thought it would.

2. Anomalisa (2015) directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson.


When I was young, I fell in love with a gal who was also in love with me until she wasn’t anymore and so she said so long and moved on and thanks for everything, don’t take it personally, and, as this was my first experience of this kind of devastation, I struggled for a very long time to understand what had just happened and how it had been possible.  One day, I remember realizing that she no longer viewed me as someone special, as her beloved, as a joy to be with, as someone to look forward to seeing again soon, but, instead, simply saw me the way in which we see so many other people – just another acquaintance.  That specialness that surrounds those whom we love intimately had vanished from me.  To her, I was just another guy.  I was just like everybody else.  For a very long time, I had no idea how to view her as just another gal, or of how to see her outside of her aura of specialness, and so I was gutted by this transformation (although, it should be noted, she is not to blame for that).

These thoughts came to mind again, while watching Anomalisa because the protagonist, Michael, hears everyone in the world – his former lover, his wife, his child, the hotel clerk, everyone – speaking with the same voice.  Everyone is just like everyone else.  Nobody is special.  And Michael is a lonely mess, looking for anything that might help him forget the way loneliness aches, even if just for the smallest moment (and regardless of the harm that it might cause others).  Then, while staying at a hotel the night before speaking at a customer service conference, Michael hears a woman who has a voice of her own.  This is Lisa, the titular anomaly.  So, Michael pursues her and, given her admiration for his work and given the way in which he chooses her over her more conventionally attractive friend, he has little trouble bringing her back to his hotel room and having sex with her.  They then began to think about running away together but, as they do so, Lisa’s voice begins to change and then she, too, sounds like everyone else (giving new insight into Michael’s earlier encounter with an ex whom he seems to have suddenly abandoned ten years previously – in that encounter, Michael asks his ex, “Do you think you changed?  Do you think there was a time you changed?” although he also tells her that he thinks he has mental problems…).  So, Lisa, too, is abandoned and Michael returns home to what seems to be a profoundly unhappy family, masquerading as a happy, well-adjusted one.

(As for Lisa, unlike the ex or Michael’s wife, she does not seem to have been harmed by this fling with Michael, she seems more alive than ever, even though it is possible that she was simply a figment of Michael’s imagination and a fantasy that he played out with the antique Japanese doll he brings home to his son.)

I think there are a lot of lenses one could deploy to think about this film in really fun and interesting ways.  It’s very well done.  I was especially struck by the way in which it shows how men – especially well-to-do white men – compulsively latch onto the specialness of others in order to try and escape the ache that exists in their empty centres.  But this never works and, instead, they mostly end up planting an ache inside of others as well.  The lesson here, I think, is that some people, especially men, need to learn to accept their aches and not try to find peace outside of aching but within it.  Then, perhaps, they can learn to appreciate specialness without consuming it.

3. Carnival of Souls (1962) directed by Herk Harvey.


What happens to those who die but don’t realize they are dead?  How can they determine who are their friends and who is out to harm them?  Mary seems to drown in a car that falls from a bridge into a swollen river, but she speechlessly and seemingly miraculously emerges from the water a few hours later (even though those dredging the river have been unable to locate the car or her two companions).  She is then haunted by two things – the ghostly presence of a seemingly dead man who seems intent on coming for her, and the flesh-and-blood presence of her fucking creepo of a neighbour who is also coming for her.  The dead man, we learn, is actually Mary’s dance partner in the carnival of souls that takes place every night at an abandoned fairgrounds in the desert (a place Mary is drawn to, although she cannot figure out why).  The neighbour, well, he’s just an average dude.  Which is what makes he so scary.  And, in the end, we learn that Mary has been dead the whole time when the car is finally pulled from the river and her corpse is discovered in it.

Carnival of Souls is treated as a classic within the horror genre, bordering on camp but not quite crossing into it.  I think its true strength is not the creepiness of the dead but the all-too-real creepiness of Mary’s male neighbour who knows she is vulnerable, who knows what he wants, and who is certain he is going to get it, regardless of how Mary feels about him, and so, hey, he might as well make himself out to be a nice guy.  And that’s how it is with most nice guys.

4. Werewolf (2016) directed by Ashley McKenzie.


I don’t spend much time watching moving about people experiencing homelessness or struggling with using various substances that the State says are illicit, not because a lot of these movies aren’t well done, but because I deal with those things enough in my life.  However, when I saw the trailer for Werewolf at TIFF a few years ago, I flagged it in my mind, and I jumped at an opportunity to watch it this month.  It felt mostly honest to me.  The bleakness of poverty, and living as people whom the State considers disposable due to certain patterns of self-soothing, and the difficulty of breaking free from this to something truly better and exciting, struck me as neither over- nor understated.

When reading reviews of this film, I was struck by how critics described the two individuals, Vanessa and Blaise, who are the focal couple.  Vanessa, who speaks infrequently and who seems to be more successful in working towards sobriety, garners a lot of sympathy.  Blaise, who is more outspoken (and, on rare occasions, even a little volatile), and who seems to be less committed to sobriety or escaping the town they both hate, seems to be considered a villain.  Now, granted, if Vanessa wants to be sober and get out of town, she’ll probably have to cut ties with Blaise, but this doesn’t mean Blaise is a bad guy.  In fact, he’s quite sensitive and speaks up when people treat him poorly, or treat him like he is an animal or a sore or something to be feared and shunned.  Even when he does lose his temper, this is because his medications are being cut off and they are the key thing keeping him feeling well and off of other drugs.  And, even in his anger, he doesn’t lay hands on anyone.  Really, by considering Blaise a “bad dude” or whatever, the critics just reinforces the whole idea of the sick role, and of how those who push back against oppressive systems, are viewed not as people to be admired but as problems to be dealt with.


1. Into the Inferno (2016) directed by Werner Herzog.


I went in and out of watching this film but I think that’s okay because Herzog went in and out of making it – following rabbit trails, chasing tangents, going where he wanted to go and pursuing whatever caught his eye because, I presume, that’s what he wanted to do.  I did enjoy the film – in part because I just like listening to Herzog’s voice – even though I didn’t find it entirely gripping.  I wish he had shown more volcano footage.  I do find it curious that I accidentally watched two documentaries that featured North Korea this month.  Some of the exact same places are shot from the exact same angles in Into the Inferno and Under the Sun.  That was unexpected.

2. Under the Sun (2015) directed by Vitaly Mansky.


Everybody is into Chomsky and Herman when it comes to analyzing the ways in which their enemies present themselves through various media, but nobody applies the same lenses to themselves or those whom they consider their friends.  In fact, engaging in a criticism of how foreign nations – like North Korea – present themselves, or making it clear that the footage one is viewing is only what officials have given us permission to view, is part of reinforcing the illusion of our own supposedly objective and ideology-free media.  If we can apply Manufacturing Consent to this presentation of life in the DPRK, then surely that means we’re objective!

Thus, Under the Sun is supposed to be a documentary of what life is like in North Korea but the story and shots are constructed by North Korean government officials, and we are told this from the beginning and are shown shots of how those official manipulated the scenes that are presented as though they are natural and unscripted.  By lifting the veil and showing us behind the scenes material, I think Vitaly Mansky wants us to conclude that, by viewing his film, we will be able to see through the “ideological” presentation and determine what the “real” DPRK is like.  We won’t be fooled — we can see what’s really going on here!  But I think this is a false conclusion.  We simply move from one ideology to another ideology which seeks to present itself as natural, true, or real – which is precisely the desired outcome of all ideologies.  Mansky might seduce us with a sense of our own superiority and our ability to see behind the curtain and understand “what’s really going on,” but I will not be seduced.  What we see is not the relity of the DPRK, what we see is the ideological presentation of North Korea preferred by Mansky (and Netflix).

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