Showing posts with label Foucault. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Foucault. Show all posts

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Jillian Becker's "L: A Novel History": Book Review

What if a purportedly progressive, charismatic leader, enamored with self-sacrifice in the manner inspired by Foucault, Bataille, Sartre, and Georg Lúkas, rose to replace Maggie Thatcher in 80s England? Labour, weakened by Tory rule, cannot resist a violent Left which takes its cue from intellectuals and provocateurs advocating a liberating reign by "action art" and extremism in the name of ecstatic cruelty? A celebrity avant-garde writer from a wealthy family establishes the Red Republic of Britain in the late 80s.

While the introduction gives away the fact that only five seasons and two years span the reign of Louis Zander, the range of opinions and witnesses enriches the situation evoked. This recalls for me the multiple sources used by Jack London in "The Iron Heel" with its 1908 extrapolation of epic dystopia, and its pairing of a future scholar's edition of a contemporary's account. Less directly, see Thomas Flanagan in his historical novels about Ireland, and lately, Joseph O'Connor's Irish-American narratives "Star of the Sea" and "Redemption Falls" (I reviewed the latter in 1/08.) I nod to Gyorgy Kepes' "1985" and Anthony Burgess' "1985"--clever follow-ups to Orwell. Becker via Gill's fragmentation of opinions and the attempt of a later scholar to make sense out of varying testimonies engrosses me, and should thoughtful readers.

It favors a calm, steady, academic tone to filter the dramatic events. It does get more brutal, as such novels tend to, once characters revolt against tyranny. As a reader of the above writers myself (and of two earnest neo-Marxian efforts of Terry Eagleton), it's refreshing to see from a more conservative, cautious perspective their idealistic, somewhat seminar-driven and tenured-radical theories put into deadly force, for "moral murder." As I've been interested but cautious about the more heated, less sensible applications of such grand ideas when everyday people are the victims and when the privileged insist upon their elevated status to perpetrate violence upon the innocent, this is an engrossing parable. Reminds me of Sinclair Lewis' "It Can't Happen Here" (see my review in Aug. 2012) where FDR was replaced by a faux-good ol' boy who put 1936 America under martial law promptly, and worse.

Jillian Becker's alternative history imagines this from papers assembled by the fictional (despite the Amazon heading) historian Bernard Gill's compilation, in 2023. The trouble with such novels of ideas is that characters can turn mouthpieces for ideologies, and while this is not absent here, it's less of a drawback than usual for the genre. I may lean towards folks she criticizes, but I welcome the chance to hear from other viewpoints. I admit a fondness for this subject. My patience with scholarly voices and my acceptance of a denser style through which predicaments and proclamations may be conveyed may mark me as stodgier than readers now preferring a rapid story with less ideology. But, I accept this style.

I'm reviewing this via a Kindle edition for the US market, 2012. N.B.: the Kindle lacks the list of sources, bibliography, and index of the text version. However, it adds an introduction placing the work in tandem with relevant events since '05.

We face our own decisions about expanding government power. We watch disparate protesters in American cities get shut down by police and corporate interests. Abroad, desperate crowds wanting economic redistribution and an end to corporate and political collusion continue via Twitter and Facebook to attempt revolt against despots. As Becker notes, the re-appearance of this is timely, and the fictionalized if fact-heavy medium a fitting one to spread a warning against how appealingly totalitarianism can arise, not only from the conventional suspects and party lines. (Amazon US 8-10-12--just over 1500 reviews there, and this is my 1500th post on this blog.)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

PowerPoint, a Freudian slip, fairy fears

"R.E.M. Succumbs": so they titled their first videos; for me, I succumbed to my first home-made Power Point presentation yesterday. I gave at an Irish Studies conference up in Northern California a talk on the invention of the concept of "Celtic Buddhism." Needing to make this extremely esoteric topic understandable, I had to sadly jettison Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, and Banville and my lit-crit baggage.

Lightened, I decided to focus the projector on what could be seen by my audience: the visual counterparts to the words and concepts I selected. I edited down first my 15,000-word article from my ongoing research, finished earlier this year. (If I hope soon to expand rather than to contract. Any takers?) 9,000 words for a CD-Rom for the forthcoming proceedings of the "Alternative Spiritualities in Ireland" conference at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, two weeks hence were sent off-- last week-- to meet their limits.

Then, I revised my 2,800-word, twenty-minute talk, paring off sentences and adding more, trying to keep the sprawling talk within its own boundaries. Shadows lengthened the afternoon after our arrival up North. Days before my paper, I recited to myself over and over, the last time after we descended-- a week after "Fern River" and "Quail Hollow" as I wrote about last week on this blog-- again upon our patient hosts four hundred miles away (this time it took four hours each way with a flight rather than seven by car) in the hills above Santa Cruz.

I talked to the forest and the wind. I felt like a Franciscan; Poverello of Assisi's statue sat silently next to me, steadily peering out of his cowl over neat rocks and patient flowers towards a koi pond. I paced about near him, if out of sight of hosts and spouse, cat and dogs, tv and house, behind a redwood circular wall under a canopy of the same trees on a slope full of welcome shade. I practiced in a delightfully appropriate setting of a hot tub strewn with pine branches and needles across its cover by a recent storm, where their tutelary statue of Buddha had to be moved from its niche to safer ground after the gusts. I kept it in my eye as I walked about the enclosure as if an Irish ringfort or Celtic rath, a bard declaiming to bird and tree my own utterances of ancient wisdom as Samhain neared.

This is demanding work. It's difficult when you must hack out thousands of words sweated over during months of labor. Then, you must re-think the talk as given to people who haven't the slightest idea (unlike Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, or Banville) of whom you're talking about. I find my research often delves into the fringes, off the deep end, from conventional scholarly pursuits. As an outlier myself, I sympathize with past self-taught scholars, misled autodidacts, ignored profs from obscure colleges. What they may have in their own time assembled might, as yesterday proved, inspire good-natured ribbing from later scholars, but it also provides a salutory lesson in humility.

I found that on the first page of my talk, the second slide, I made an impromptu shout-out to an audience I was not sure knew what in blazes I was getting at. Maybe more scholars should do this. Or, perhaps they don't, as their expertise honed at far more conferences and weekly seminars than I can attend on a limited expense budget and a year-round teaching load compares to my own, to my detriment.

Well, do you know what a "lingam" is, off-hand, without looking it up now on Wikipedia in a pop-up tabbed search box on your browser? I figured not everyone might have, but I blurted out that it meant "vagina," rather than "phallus," as many in the spirited audience corrected me instantly. A bit nervous as I was but three minutes into my presentation, not sure if the Power Point remote would work, in a bright room where the slides could not be seen easily, testing my voice against my height and a microphone that refused to let me do other than bend like a giraffe and talk down at it while craning my gaunt neck to keep scanning the crowd for essential eye contact. I mixed up "lingam" with "yoni," as the fact that the passage from the 1894 antiquarian author of "Old Druids and Old Irish Religions" had been discussing immediately after "secret recesses." Freudian slip?

I recovered instantly, shrugging in exaggerated fashion: "Well, they're all connected anyhow." I guess it got a second laugh, or else the first laugh had turned into chortles of derision at my lack of cred, me being after all the outlier barely above "independent scholar," which I do label myself-- if as one "who happens to teach," such is the cognitive dissonance between my academic investigations and the way I earn my daily keep in the classroom. (At least, as my wife noted, I kept my eyes off the Bangladeshi in a sari who sat immediately beneath the podium, every time I enunciated "Hindu" or "India" or "Orientalist." I was too tall to really see her in my line of skewed sight unless I peered down at her, an owl from a perch.)

It's always awkward to face a new crowd and size them up as to what you know vs. what they know. Conferences can be deadly dull, even more than classrooms, when the speaker fails to convert their paper into a true talk. Making the leap for me from text alone to images works this time, but I predict as most of my research relies far less on the actual eye rather than the mind's eye, that my PP'll be deployed sparingly. No endless bullet points, no word-for-word articulation of what every stunned audience member must stare at for the next 58 slides, 12 charts, 10-point font, fourteen-hued pie chart thinly sliced. There's a small grace to reside in the humanities, however poorly treated we are by the number-crunchers for whom I labor.

I read a Jesuit's autobiography long ago. He founded the Legion of Decency against smut in 1930s American movies. This crackdown of the Church against Hollywood's gin molls and original gangstas led to or paralleled the Hays Code 1933-68. This was a book I found neglected, understandably, in high school. We had "spiritual reading" regularly and I was curious about what made a man so rigorous. As you know if you visit this blog, I roam widely and always have in my book choices. Anyway, early on in his scholasticate training, Fr. Daniel Lord suggested, or demanded him being S.J. old school, that if you taught, you should never sit down. I never do when speaking to students. I move around and feel on the days they present (PowerPoint's almost a given for them) the lack of movement in my spine and on the plastic chair.

There, in flourescent rooms amidst the canned-course lesson slides that accompany now most of my classes if not yet all (wait 'til next year), I must use PP for certain lessons for certain courses now and then, but I still feel like I am tethered to them whereas I like to roam and prowl a classroom with marker in hand, podium more as a center to stalk about rather than an anchor to weigh me down. Our classes lack the remote for the PP, so one must be often, as many profs remain to their detriment whether tied to a podium or lashed to a stool, caught behind a console, tapping the keyboard forward.

Me, I like to wander, intellectually and professionally. My magpie's nest, my flotsam and jetsom paper, on the other hand, benefited I trust from the input of my wife and Dr. Bob our host and friend, who kindly accompanied me to the conference session and sat through the other papers: I was the middle speaker. Kara Donnelly from NYU delivered a complementary discussion on Roddy Doyle's story from "The Deportees"-- a Gothic Gaelic tale "The Pram." A Polish nanny, a new fixture in a modern South Dublin far changed from Doyle's native Northside two decades ago, enters an upscale home, fearsomely helmed by a yuppiefied hard-charging mother, to exact the Old Country's slow justice on an Irish woman too caught up in her own power-trip to listen to her family or nurture their love.

This clash foreshadowed my own look at how hyphenated identities in Ireland reveal globalized and localized unease, and encouraged healing by answering venerable longings. Romantics and Victorians may have invented the concept without historical proof; today, people invent the concept and deny they need "historical verification" for their belief system to be constructed in a Foucauldian realm. Mary Wack from Western Washington U. followed with a talk about how a vengeful fairy (in the wake of not the cute Disneyfied wee folk but as we Irish truly know-- my ancestral farm harboring a "fairy fort" I would never dare enter; see Eddie Lenihan's "Meeting the Other Side" and my review on Amazon US if you doubt my caution, for cautionary tales) haunted a Limavady farmer all the way to America to wreak spectral terror.

I pondered with my colleagues briefly afterwards how all three of our talks had delved into Irish culture's fear of, and love of telling each other about, the attraction to the spirits of the Otherworld. Roddy Doyle, Celtic Buddhists real or imagined, and an Ordnance Survey's 1830 recounting of a cottier's report all witness to the Irish fascination with that we cannot hold down, but which we determine to be as real as the space we fill with these words such as I type to you today. We love conjuring up tall tales, mandala fusions, and family spook-stories that speak to very real emotions that reveal even in our material world of today, how much we listen to the voices we cannot see, past, present, and, perhaps tonight for you in your bedroom, the future.

(Photo taken by me on our earlier visit up North, with Buddha in his niche, August '09.)

Saturday, May 23, 2009

"What Kind of Philosopher Are You?" (& other Facebook quizzes)

"You are incredulous to metanarratives. Truth is relative to all the elements of history and social location. You seek diversity and fragmentation as well as the dissolution of power structures that oppress people. You are probably a feminist and you probably critique social mores through the use of deconstruction. Unfortunately many don't consider you a philosopher: logical self-contradictions abound in postmodern theory, but you certainly have a lot to offer in the way of social critique. You are a postmodern."

So went the results of the first smart quiz I've come across on Facebook, and after only five questions! Few consider me a philosopher, that's true; true too my predilection for social (and literary and musical) critique!

It's accompanied by a snapshot of brooding baldy Foucault. When I started grad school, I bought an introduction to him, "The Will to Truth," that's served me well. I've always liked the witty picture on its cover; rare to have a title from Routledge let slip a modicum of levity! Alan Sheridan's lucid overview, dating myself, was the first in English! When I did my dissertation, it being on arcane (of course) medieval religious literary culture, I was told by my advisors I had to drag "THEORY" into the congregation, not only Thomistic disputation or Augustinian exordium. Well, the quiz informs me I'm "Postmodern."

So, I sprinkled a bit of "Discipline and Punish; The Birth of the Prison," being disappointed by Foucault's abandoned "History of Sexuality" since it couldn't get it up enough to last until even the Middle Ages. I went back to that carceral study, seeing my recent sentence to the pedagogical wing of the electronic delivery apparatus of the Panopticon along the expanded (thanks to the Web that Foucault never saw unfurled), "carceral continuum." As he warned us: "Visibility is a trap."

Still, back in somewhat freer days among the Academy, I threw the tenured mandarins all for a loop when I started my opusculum by evoking Mircea Eliade's Altaic shamans and Robert Thurman's Tibetan "psychonauts." If they wanted to integrate multicultural, non-phallocentric all-inclusive po-mo into my muted parade of lugubrious dirges and choral trentals, they collided with my innately eclectic, post-punk psyched SoCal syncretism. I reordered my own post-structural bricolage, my own set of "ex votos" and reredos.

I tire of theory as such easily; yet, I know following Foucault that my phenomenological, nominalist, and skeptical bent twists me away from any allegiance to any power stucture, any easy explanation of it all. I also admit that my own professed distrust of meta-narrative itself represents its own endlessly generated narrative. This labyrinth, as Foucault and Derrida acknowledged, made its own trap that none of us, given our human predicament, could escape power from by any Word On High. The patterns of "discursive formation" engender their own destruction and reconstitution, and so our inability to ever pin the tail on truth's donkey's ass.

I guess, unlike Deasy to Stephen in "Ulysses," not history but "theory's to blame." The mode when I was in grad school was away from textual explication or psychoanalytical reduction towards deconstructive and transformative leftist critiques. They have tenure now. The generation since-- and perhaps those of us apart from those who've safely secured faculty posts by fidelity to denial of all standards as fixed, apart from their own tenured hurdles to leap-- has turned more suspicious that all can be levelled to "socially constructed" models of discourse.

I'm not sure what's replaced it, other what I've inherited: a millennial exhaustion with impenetrable prose that mocks academic obfuscation by imitating it in such a mortifying depiction of rigor mortis. Such "interrogation" reminds me of the Ramists, late on, who kept pressing Scholasticism forward in the face of dulled students tempted past hedging Erasmus by the shouts of a bolder Reformation. Not that those rebels made much headway initially with textual liberation, but even amid political suppression and religious totalitarianism, it was a start. But, I digress.

Every generation gets subjected to the syllabus of its teachers, the predilections in which their professoriate had been inculcated. Radicals get tenure; true radicals and freethinking outliers stay shut out. Luckily, head advisor like me favored restless Jung over routine Freud, so at least he spared me tiresome sidesteps towards taking seriously that Viennese prattler. It's also fun to know that my wife has to acknowledge my accreditation now as not the usual "fascist" she labels me as, but as a credible "feminist" any UC Santa Cruz History of Consciousness major will doubtless recognize as an "incredulous" and suitably theory-addled peer!

P.S. Apropos, making up for lost time after a busy week working for The Man, I took also a "Which 60s Subculture Are You?" I'm with the, gulp, "caravans of clowns" and "Yippies" alongside Kesey and Abbie. I wonder if Foucault caught AIDS when he hung out at Berkeley in the Harvey Milk era? I guess I have a sense of humor after all. I'd prefer San Francisco's more philosophical jesters The Diggers, alongside that Hiberno-New Yawker talltale teller (read "Ringolevio"-- I have two copies!) Emmett Grogan. Apparently the Diggers got shunted over to the other side of the bus with the more earnest quiz kid boomer contingent, "Hippies."

P.P.S. As for "What Kind of Reader Are You?": "Snooty Loner." Icon of Eustace Tilley, New Yorker mascot, if that's the word for such a gentleman, inserted. "It's not necessarily a bad thing. You read what you want, and what you want is the best. You don't ask for recommendations on what to read. You don't want to discuss how you feel about books. You don't read anything Oprah reads. You do sneer at anyone reading Danielle Steele on the bus." I posted that I do post "how I feel about books," not in some bluestocking's circle, but on this very blog, and on Amazon, amidst the Top 500.

P.P.P.S. I was also for "What Los Angeles neighborhood are you from?": "Born in East L.A.," as the Cheech song goes, and I was, at County General which I can see from my upstairs window. "South of the 10" Freeway is part of the definition, and that's not correct, but I am definitely if unpredictably given my ethnicity and complexion a true Eastsider, living the other side of the true border, the L.A. River. Not La Brea or whatever the Westsiders, Hollywooders want it to be as "urban pioneers" not to mention those damned hipsters overrunning Los Feliz (which was a quiz question regarding local pronunciation along with "Cahuenga"), Silverlake and Echo Park!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Simone Weil: Chain-Smoking, Self-Starving, Self-Exiled Jewish Mystical Malcontent?

That title reminds me of Phranc, "your average Jewish lesbian folksinger," who once graced our home to hawk Tupperware. Weil in my vague recall was a formidable ethicist, a prickly Jewish convert to Catholicism who died during the German occupation of France. Well, Weil according to Benjamin Ivry's "Simone Weil's Rediscovered Jewish Inspiration" in the April 10, 2009 "Forward" revises the hagiographical litany.

The centennial of her birth and the usual flurry of academic attention this time follows a Finnish oratorio, and accompanies a "performance event" in Manhattan's East Village. Ivry reports: "And the tributes continue. One of them comes from Darrell Katz, who recently composed 'The Death of Simone Weil,' a voice and jazz ensemble suite. Darrell sums it up: 'Mystic visionary comes to life with a big band behind her.'" I cannot improve upon or detract from this transformation of an social agitator into a presumably Off-Off Broadway extravaganza. One more reason for me why to hate jazz. Black-clad Gothamites who shelled out for "The Producers" (or "Life is Beautiful"?) might be waiting in line for the rush tix as I type.

To my surprise, Ivry notes that her niece's new biography reveals that Simone never wrote "anything against the Nazi persecution." DeGaulle, intriguingly given the recent film about Hannah Senesh from Palestine infiltrating occupied Hungary, called Weil "completely insane" for a similar wish to parachute into France during the war. While often treated as a martyr manque for her beliefs, Ivry counters with her letter to Georges Bernanos, the famed Catholic exponent, in "an often quoted 1938 letter: 'I am not Catholic, even though-- what I am going to say will doubtless seem presumptuous to any Catholic, coming from a non-Catholic, but I cannot say it any other way-- even though nothing Catholic or Christian has even seemed foreign to me."

What Weil believed instead of formal religions and their "historical tyrannies" eludes easy summary. She felt others' pain. She pushed herself into identification with the poor, devoted herself to workers' movements and the Spanish Republicans, and as an "absolutist woman" eventually starved herself-- in 1943 England-- to death, a tubercular patient dying of a combination of cardiac arrest and a refusal to eat. She sounds like a pill, as old folks used to mutter.

Still, this uncompromising stance in solidarity, this sacrifice for occupied France, won her admirers. Most people, myself included along with the professoriate, classify her usually among leftist, existentialist Christian philosophers. Relentless, exasperating, uncompromising, Weil came from a family tenuously Jewish. Most critics "cite her visceral distaste for organized religions, particularly Judaism, and define her as a Christian mystic, although she never converted from Judaism."

Her niece Sylvie's book tries to restore a Jewish dimension, although the evidence for such an assimilated generation as her aunt's appears rather risible! Ivry sums up:
Sylvie herself is scrupulous in explaining how almost all of Simone’s biographers have understated the degree to which the Weil family retained elements of the Jewish tradition. She ridicules the notion that, as one writer claims, her aunt was unaware — until she was 12 years old — that her family was Jewish. Describing a family that is Jewish both culturally and in terms of quirky personalities, Sylvie alludes to what she calls the family “chutzpah,” a habit of talking takhles (in a brutally frank way) regardless of who might be offended. This was characteristic of both Simone and André Weil, who were socially cumbersome houseguests, if in diametrically opposite ways. While Simone insisted on bedding down on the floor in a sleeping bag while visiting, and starving herself (while nevertheless chain-smoking) to identify with the poor, André would demand entitlement to the room with the best view and criticize the food if it was not up to snuff. Neither Simone nor André would accept less than emes (the truth) from others, and in this, Sylvie clearly shares in the exigent family personality.

To me, that chain-smoking socialist-- graduate from the prestigious École Normale Supérieure-- in sympathy with the doubtlessly puffing proles will be an indelible image of a fragile figure many have idolized. Trés proto-beatnik French, too! It does make her more human, even if I doubt if I'd have gotten along with her any more than most people may have. It's hard to imagine her letting her hair down.

Like many fierce lovers of their fellow men and women in principle, perhaps she could not bend her principles flexibly enough to align her punished body with her preoccupied mind. I wrote this past Easter about "Pax Christi" and Francis of Assisi's own road to willing torment. In this, Weil and Francis sought radical humanity with the Crucified One as the supreme inspiration for their own devoted asceticism that hastened their untimely deaths in their fourth decade.

Yesterday, I ordered from the Wales Book Council's half-price sale despite my own financial abnegation of late a title by Grahame Davies, "Everything Must Change." It juxtaposes Weil's relentless life with that of a Cymraeg-language activist of similarly recalcitrant ideals. Certainly a "novel" parallel that I will look forward to reviewing here, once the surface mail, at a pace that will probably outrun the time it took to breach the Maginot Line, arrives. (Update: I reviewed it on my blog and on Amazon US and Britain 9-25-09, very favorably.)

Was Weil insane? Suicidal? A "holy anorexic"? Kafka's hunger artist, mystical Christians and Buddhists who crave the "emptiness of form" by self-surrender, and the recent film about Bobby Sands by Steve McQueen, "Hunger": these raise uncomfortable questions. We hesitate to delve into the mindset of those whom society classifies as crazy or canonized, exemplars for our imitation or warnings for our conformity.

It's a squirmy debate that places holiness next to madness, self-preservation against self-surrender. Who controls our bodies, and how can we free our souls? I wonder if after all, another ENS graduate, Michel Foucault (despite his own unwise perambulations and my distance from facile theorizing) hit the target: in prisons, monasteries, hospitals, factories and schools we follow the science of precise scrutiny and oppressive measurement. Our individuality, once the prerogative of nobles, now marks each one of us in the carceral society.

This scrutiny, as tactics once the Gestapo only may have demonstrated, now opens up as we put our selves into the electronic Panopticon, where we all look at each other, none of us knowing when or whom, always on display, never sure when we're watched, so we always act on best behavior. Weil: what reward did she seek by her refusal? Such resistance to Big Brother may lure more of us in our surveilled cells into thinkers who dash into the electrified fence, over the Big Wall into annihilation, willingly, for a cause.

Photo: Not sure of pictorial provenance, but it may be from her ill-fated 1938 stint in the Renault plant at Boulogne-Billancourt. The source of it? My first hit on Google Images, a "Ground of Eternity" entry in summer 2007, was penned by none other than "Bo" of present "Cantos of Mvtabilitie" & "The Expvlsion of the Blatant Beast" blog-renown.