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August Reviews

These reviews are very late and, due to my busy-ness at the moment, are very brief. Je m’excuse. Mentioned in this post: 13 Books (Critique of Black Reason; Vibrant Matter; The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis; Becoming Human; On Balance; McMindfulness; The Medicalization of Everyday Life; The Overstory; Nadja; On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous; Night Sky with Exist Wounds; Cascade Experiment; and Calligrammes); 1 Movie (Us); and 1 Documentary (Chicken People).


1. Critique of Black Reason by Achille Mbembe.


In Critique of Black Reason Achille Mbembe argues that the notion of Blackness that White Europeans developed in order to provide a basis for master-slave relationships throughout their various empires, still continues to provide the ideological form and basis of ongoing relationships of oppression today. I found the first few chapters quite exciting but then felt my interest waning until I was kind of just relieved to be done the book. This was disappointing both because of the strong start and because I had enjoyed Mbembe’s previous (and influential) essay on contemporary necropolitics (juxtaposed with Foucauldian biopolitics).

2. Vibrant Matter: a political ecology of things by Jane Bennett.


Jane Bennett argues that, in some sense, everything has agency, everything possesses causality, and everything, in some capacity (and certainly not in the same capacity) contributes to and experiences what we refer to as “life.” I appreciate her thoughtfulness and the ways in which she assists the reader in (re)discovering a sense of wonder, mystery, and uniqueness-with-interconnectedness, with all that is (whatever it is). That said, I felt that she fell short of some conclusions because of her lack of engagement with Indigenous ways of knowing. She takes things far—especially for one rooted in Occidental philosophies and sciences—but could go further. Regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

3. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book XI by Jacques Lacan.


I was actually excited to read more Lacan after working through his truly excellent seminar on anxiety. Unfortunately, I found this lecture series on the four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis to be much less rewarding. Sometimes Lacan strikes me as a snake-oil salesperson. He speaks in riddles and promises that the reader (or listener) will attain great riches if they only buy-in and follow him (because he has learned the great secrets of hidden knowledge) but half the time (or more?) I feel like the pay-off never comes and he’s just leading his groupies down the garden path. I feel like he taps into a weak spot in academics and intellectuals who want to be the smartest smart person who ever smarted (and he offers just enough moments of brilliance to keep dragging you along). Anyway, I think I might take a break from Lacanianism.

4. Becoming Human by Jean Vanier.


Being rooted in a profession that is dominated by a medical model of care, and seeing the ways in which the pressures of professionalism and expertise, of accumulating stats and “evidence-based” research date, drives workers to feelings of isolation and exhaustion—as well is ratcheting up the already all-to-common feelings of “imposter syndrome” that dominant our culture—and also noting how this has a dramatic, and harmful, impact upon the clients these professionals claim to “serve,” has got me going back to the writings of Jean Vanier (and Henri Nouwen and, more recently, Carl Rogers) because I think there is a lot that is being lost, a lot that is being forgotten, and a lot of harm that is being done that could be avoided and, in fact, transformed into lovingkindness. So, I went back and read Vanier’s lectures on Becoming Human and they were good and helpful although, perhaps, not quite all I hoped or remembered them being.

5. On Balance by Adam Phillips.


It appears that I’ve been reading a lot more psychoanalytic texts than usual over the last few months—and this includes this collection of essays by Adam Phillips, a psychoanalysis with an eye for culture, a taste for literature, and an interest in philosophy. He asks a lot of questions that I (and perhaps others) have not thought to ask and this, I think, is a particular strength of his. He does an especially fine job of questioning, problematizing, and un-resolving dominant truisms (like, for example, the assertion that it’s important to live a balanced life).  Very enjoyable and very usable as you, the reader, go forth and … think? Act? Whatever.

6. McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality by Ronald E. Purser.


Given the hegemonic role that the discourse of health (especially mental health) plays in shaping our life together, and given that ubiquity of disciplinary therapeutic regimes that do much to form us as subjects today, mindfulness has becoming an increasingly prominent technique being pushed by everyone from mental health workers to labour bosses to Silicon Valley CEOs. Ronald Purser finds this concerning. This is so for two main reasons (as far as I can tell). At a more personal level, as a practicing Buddhist, he’s annoyed by the ways in which Buddhist practices are being appropriated and warped beyond recognition (and then still being selectively represented as Buddhist when this helps bring in the dollars). At a more corporate level, he is concerned that this deployment of mindfulness ends up actually helping to grease the wheels of capitalism—for example, mindful workers will work harder for longer, thereby allowing capitalists to extract the utmost labour value from them before they are disposed of—rather than being a tool that allows us to reshape our society in a more life-affirming and life-giving manner (this fits with Žižek’s criticisms of “Western Buddhism although Purser doesn’t engage Ž.). Thus, mindfulness ends up contributing to what Lauren Berlant refers to as “cruel optimism”—we invest ourselves in it because we hope it will lead us to a better world but our investment within it actually becomes part of what traps us in this shitty world. As a counterpoint, I appreciated Purser’s emphasis that Buddhist notions of mindfulness are paired with a broader sense of consciousness that pursues justice in the socioeconomic and political spheres. I think Purser’s criticisms are pretty on point. I agree that most of the mental health industry is geared towards producing functionality within the world as it is—getting “dysfunctional” or “sick” people to return to waged labour, paying rent, collecting credit-debt, and so on. However, I would temper his criticisms in one way. People who are overwhelmed, spiraling out of control, and feeling like they are losing themselves, their lives, and everything they love, still need to access tools that will help them attain at least some level of “okayness.” To be okay enough to live needn’t mean that one is okay with everything that is going on in the world. But if one is entirely not okay all the time, then one cannot do much to work to change the world. In this regard, mindfulness can still be a useful tool. Those of us engaging in acts of resistance (however small, however impotent) still need to find the strength to make it through the day and continue the struggle tomorrow. For some, mindfulness can help with that (to pick another example: we won’t solve the conjoined issues of wealth accumulation, dispossession, imperialism and colonialism by ensuring that people who are starving have food, but we still need to ensure that people who are starving have food so that they can live to fight another day). I’m pretty sure Purser would agree with this if asked, but I felt that his text neglected this.

7. The Medicalization of Everyday Life: Selected Essays by Thomas Szasz.


Thomas Szasz is kind of odd. And I bet he’s totally a jerk. But what he illustrates is some of the ways in which the Right can appropriate and re-purpose liberatory analyses put forward by the radical Left in order to re-inscribe an oppressive order. In these essays, Szasz takes a critical approach to the medicalization of everyday life (something I have also done, drawing especially upon the work of Peter Conrad, Foucault, D&G, and others). However, rather than using this critique to push towards a more emancipatory politics, Szasz uses this critique to try and re-inscribe and re-enforce more traditional models of police power and the carceral state. Yikes!

8. The Overstory: A Novel by Richard Powers.


I confess that, for very intimate, personal reasons that I don’t want to fully disclose here, reading The Overstory was a very painful experience. But it is an excellent book. It weaves many characters together—many of whom are trees (and the knowledge it drops about many of these trees and the ways in which it inspires us to feelings of love and wonder in relation to trees is one of the best things about the book)—in a story about the wonder of forests and what all we are losing and the struggle to prevent that loss and the defeat of those struggling and where all of this is going and it isn’t very good and a lot of wonderful people are being abused along the way and a lot of hearts are being broken and a lot of trees are being logged and a lot of things are dying that might never, ever live again. The book is fiction but, in fact, it very closely follows the experiences of people involved in the E.L.F. (I would bet the bank that Powers drew a lot of his content and ideas from the documentary, If a Tree Falls: The Story of the Earth Liberation Front, because some parts match exactly—however, there are some major differences, and I won’t say what they are so as not to spoil the plot but it seems that Powers also works elements of the Weather Underground experience into his story—and if this book causes readers to go and learn more about the E.L.F. and the Weather Underground, then that’s a good thing). So, while several characters be imagined, this bulk of the story itself (along with the knowledge dropped about trees) is an accurate description of what has happened and is happening. This is one part of what makes it painful to me. Be that as it may, I recommend you read this book.

9. Nadja by André Breton.


Breton is a big voice within surrealism (or at least he was) so when I stumbled on this book for a steal of a deal, I thought I would check him out. Nadja is a quick read about a (semi- or fully-autobiographical?) between the male protagonist and a young woman with whom he becomes enamored but who, alas, isn’t destined for a happy ending. The book was … okay. I like Breton’s use of pictures throughout and briefly though, “Oh! This is where Sebald got the idea from!” but, after a quick bit of research I learned that this a (common) error. In fact, it seems that Sebald got the idea to use pictures in his manuscripts from reading German authors, especially Alexander Kluge (whom I then quickly added to my “to read” list).

10. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous: A Novel by Ocean Vuong.


Ocean Vuong is my new favourite author. Beautiful prose, heart-rending, overflowing with all the feels, this is a wonderful, wonderful coming of age story about first love and being the gay son of a refugee who fled Vietnam when the Americans were waging of a war of total extermination there. Love, beauty, pain, abuse, tender affection, alterity, and belonging, all swirl together here. I very highly recommend this book. It will be in my list of “best books I read in 2019” that I put out at the end of the year. Might even be the very best.

11. Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong.


Ocean Vuong started with poetry and only later began publishing prose. This collection of poems is one of the best I’ve ever read. Vuong, along with Warsan Shire (whose life experiences actually mirror Vuong’s in some ways), has become my favourite contemporary poet. Both of them can easily stand toe-to-toe with the likes of Rilke and Eliot.  Recommended reading.

12. Cascade Experiment: Selected Poems by Alice Fulton.


Alice Fulton’s poem, “Shy One,” is one of the best poems you will ever read by any poet. Every word perfectly chosen, the form complex but not ostentatiously so, the feelings immediate and overwhelming throughout, and the alteration between gasping and laughing and saying wow that accompanies the conclusion the reward every reader of poetry is constantly seeking (once they have found it once) in every other poem. It is, in my opinion, the best poem in this collection but there are several others that are very strong and, even in those that are less strong, there are still sections where the wording says exactly what the wording intends to say in a way that language rarely captures outside of poetry. When engaging with popular or contemporary poets, I have found that is frequently a divide between those who use very simple, stripped down, language to try and cut to the heart of feelings, and those who use ten dollar words and complex structures to try and experiment with ways of communicate truths or perspectives that cannot be stated plainly (because to use plain language would be to immediately misrepresent that which one is seeking to communicate—thus, one places obscure words within complex structures not in order to prevent clear communication but out of the belief that this is the only hope we have for clear communication about things that are not immediately clear). Fulton does an impressive job about straddling the line between both of these worlds (I think Eliot does the same). Recommended reading.

13. Calligrammes: Poems of Peace and War (1913-1916) by Guillaume Apollinaire.


I confess that, as a settler of (mostly) Anglo-European descent living on Turtle Island, there is a certain exoticism paired with the whiff of prestige and mystery, that affects how I few French, German, and Russian literature. I get a certain sense of adventure, excitement, and discovery when I turn to those who are “big names” in their respective domains and regions and so, yes, I had a bit of that feeling when diving into Apollinaire (who was influential on the surrealist movement, making this the second French surrealist I read this month). His more surreal poems did not excite me (although it’s not hard to see how they influenced the structures deployed by subsequent poets who were looking for ways to break the stranglehold of conservative or traditional poetic forms). However, I did enjoy many of his poems and, more than that, I would often stumble across a line or two that seemed perfectly formed and eminently quotable (because, of course, as an aspiring writer, I am constantly plundering the texts of others). All in all, a decent read.


1. Us (2019) directed by Jordan Peele.


Regardless of the reviews (popular appeal, critical disappointment), I knew that I was going to watch Us because Jordan Peele’s last movie (Get Out) was so, so damn good. So, yeah, I think Us as good, even if it wasn’t so, so damn good. There are some major plot holes but you’ve got to just let those go otherwise the whole thing is a write-off. Once you do let those go, and you focus more on this or that scene and the trajectory of the film (imagining that the options offered by the plot holes don’t exist) then I think Peele offers us another great reflection on race in America. And a pretty solid horror film (it scared the bejesus out of Jess).


1. Chicken People (2016) directed by Nicole Lucas Haimes.


Ever since Best in Show dropped in 2000, there has been a market for examining the curious and somewhat quirky world of show animals and the people who breed and show them. We’ve seen it with dogs, and cats, and Nicole Haimes introduces us to the world of show chickens and those who love them. It’s a fun little piece, and some of the chickens really are marvelous, but I felt like it didn’t quite live up to its predecessors. That said, if you’re really into chickens, you might disagree with me!

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