Category Archives: Reviews

Review: Hayden Carruth – Collected Longer Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 1984)

Carruth is an interesting poet, and his longer poems seem to straddle the same lines that two kinds of modernists poets that were famous during his lifetime: the observational strand of Auden meets with the regional ironies of Frost then deals with the personal demons of Carruth’s contemporaries like Robert Lowell or Wendell Berry. Yet it is easy to regulate a “poet’s poet” like Carruth to a list of names of that he mirrors, so I should not do him the disservice. The flora and fauna of Vermont always appear within the book, but never in a way which alienates those from outside the region nor dropping into a kind of generic pastoral that formal poetry can be given too. Much of this book (three key long poems) is written in the near-sonnet paragraph that Carruth mastered: rhymed, myraid metered, fifteen-line stanzas that form narrative and thematic units. “The Sleeping Beauty” is among them, and this poem alone would be worth the cost of the book. The over forms in the book are various and show the lie to the accusation that Carruth was a stale formalist. Carruth is not without his unevenness, his uncanny use of adjectives is freshing, but all the more problematic with a slightly purple adjective is seen in the page. Still few poets then or now could maintain longer reflective poems like these and illustrate a mastery of a variety of techniques without it seeming forced or obvious or ostentatious. While I was familiar with Carruth’s work, finding this book in a used book shop in Seoul, South Korea was a strange bit of luck as it reminded me of the beauty of much of the late modernist American poetry that we can sometimes lose a perspective on in an age in which the two poles of poetry tend to be more glib or in the vein of light verse or more alienating in its experimental posture. While I enjoy these elements of contemporary poetry and acknowledge the craft in today’s hybrid verse, Carruth reminds us that the formal, regionalist verse can be just as challenging, even “experimental,” without depending on the prestidigitation of language poetry or break-beat of slam poetry or the ironic methodology of flarf, etc.

Batman, and persistence silliness of much popular culture criticism.

*Spoilers beneath the cut*

Why is so much lefty pop culture criticism both repetitive and generally bad criticism: take the criticism of Batman, it is not like the Dark Knight was more “subversive” than the Dark Night Rises, Batman in that movie keeps an allegory about problematic executive power only to justify its use while pretending to condemn it.  It is also not like Batman was ever a particularly “lefty” source material. This is not anything but obvious.   There are interesting things to be said about the Nolan Batman, particularly that it is sort of a mess artistically, and that it has conflicting messages:  this review, while somewhat in the same tone as a lot of the silly articles I have seen from lefty publications, discusses it a little better.    It admits the function of much of the culture industry is anyway: to reflect back at us what we already think we know.

Expecting a piece of popular culture to be beyond the cultural limitations of the current is silly:  Batman has always been about the contradictions of the wealthy “crime fighter” is explicitly fascistic, like the lefty origins of Superman who morphs from an alien hero for the poor in the earliest comics to its nearly fascistic manifestation during the Second World War until the 1970s.  The politics morph with the culture because that’s what adolescents  fantasies reflect for purely “objective” commercial reasons.  This point has been made by comic book writers themselves from Neil Gaiman to Alan Moore as early as the late 70s.  At this point, pointing out that comic books have a hero-worshiping, almost fascistic, element is, well, a “duh” statement.

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Mini-Review: Return to the city of white donkeys: Poems by James Tate

James Tate’s style consisted of practiced, easy idiosyncrasies that read akin to the narrative of a dream. His stream of conscious style paired with light wit is unique, although it does invoke poets like Kenneth Koch. To some, this may be like eating kimchi, to those who have no cultivated a taste for these particularly humorous bits of surrealism, it may go down like spiced, half-rotted cabbage. For those who have developed a taste for Tate’s particular vision, it would be something one could eat with every meal. Although that metaphor can have one miss Tate’s prime talent, the ability to build a tension that releases in humor or a subtly bitter sweet crescendo.

This book has the feel, though, that Tate has perhaps turned his process into a nearly mechanical procedure, as Randall Jarrel said about late Auden in an entirely different context, though Tate’s long lines and prosaic turns, while not quite exactly prose, may be best seen in his earlier works. This book is still not one to skip despite the fact fans of Tate may have seen it before and partisans of Tate may be coming to it with the taste of consistency that a good and unique craftsman can render, but one that sells his earlier brilliance a little short.

Review: Metapolitics – Badiou

Badiou’s work is often both refreshing in its Platonic instance of the reality of abstractions and the importance of ontology of events and truth-procedures, and infuriating in that he often makes bold claims without explicit argumentation using a methodology of suture to lay philosophy out as meta-truth procedure. This book is short, but dense and often obtuse: for one, it is a collection of essays that can be divided into four categories: 1) polemical essays, 2) essays of commentary and support, 3) examinations of major categories, and 4) philosophical prescriptions. The last category, that is to say, the only argument that Badiou makes that is fundamental to his system lies in the last essay, “Politics as Truth Procedure.”

This is largely a book whose roots lay in a suturing of politics to philosophy, but as the critic of Badiou has said, François Laruelle the demarcations of this suture is actually not as apparent as Badiou wishes. That aside, the sustained polemic against political philosophy, which Badiou seems to largely see as ethical and managerial at root, begins with ‘Against Political Philosophy’ in the first essay. Admittedly, when one can parse the idiosyncratic way that Badiou defines the state and events, his take-down of various forms of liberal political philosophy, such as the Levinasian reification of the other, Rawlsian “reflective equilibrium”, Habermas’s ‘communicative ethics’, Rorty’s evocation of a ‘conversation of mankind’ moves it away from the purely ethical and the largely linguistic turns. These rhetorical defenses of pluralism are actually a defense of a homogenization of a liberal meta-state, but unlike critiques from the right, the ontology of “Being and Event” lingers in such a way that moves one to a nearly Maoist conception of the fidelity to the idea, and an Althusserian notions of structures, but which emerge from fidelity to events.

Now this makes sense in the larger movement of Badiou’s work, but this is without Badiou’s normal systemic lay-out of the position. However, the particular valorizing of Sylvain Lazarus and his ambivilent statement about Jacques Ranciere can seem hyperbolic even to those very familiar with contemporary French thought. Furthermore, as I have hinted at, it seems that even in Badiou’s larger work, the argument for the suturing of evental politics to philosophy is actually quite thin in the larger work, and if that fails, so do most of these polemics.

Badiou, obviously, is refreshing, rigorous, and often insightful, although one sometimes suspects a formalization of Maoist impulses lie deeply within the text. People unfamiliar with Badiou’s thought SHOULD NOT start with this text as it simple structure is actually predicated with much deeper knowledge of Badiou’s methods and the philosophers in which he is in dialogue.

Flash Review: Poems Seven

There are very poems that seem more direct and laconic in English, although Nicanor Parra’s antipoetry in Spanish is unique close. A retrospective of all of Dugan’s career, whose poems still resonate with me since I read them in my late teens in the 1990s even though they were written in the 1960s. While contemporary to Charles Bukowski and Frederick Seidel, Dugan has a subtler art than Bukowski’s and a more naunced meanness than Seidel. Often bitter and hyper-rational, there is a subtle beauty that can be seen in poems like “Love Song: I and Thou” whose twists better near nihilism and love can be dizzying. Dugan’s irony is classical, not the flippancy of a lot of hipper, younger verse. To be savored, slowly and carefully, even in some of the unevenness of Dugan’s later work.

Rearview Review: Slavoj Zizek’s “Living in the End Times” (Verso, 2010)

While sporadic in argument and full of the normal Lacan-Hegel/Hegel-Lacan dialectical twists, this is one of the more interesting of Zizek’s less scholarly polemics. While more nuanced than his prior polemics such as “In Defense of Lost Causes” and not as rigorous (or as menacing) as his current tome on Hegel, his sections of the denial in the liberal utopian “present” seem particularly horrowing as Obama’s first tenure comes to a disappointing end, and the European Dream seems to be coming to a halt that stems from a mixture of German sado-monetarism, North European financialization, and lack of productive capacity in Southern Europe, his reading of the tendency to valorize the “other” seems like a necessary but more entertaining pulling from the themes of Badiou’s “Metapolitics.” Yet his pessimistic tone in “acceptance” seems to lead to some what his problems with Occupy may have been, but also indicate why he may not have been able to foresee either.

The looming caveat here is the lingering “non-style” and “non-argument” of Zizek, a kind of discursiveness and aphorism through joke that resembles Nietzsche or H.L. Mencken as much as a Hegelian Marxist or a Left Lacanian theorist. Furthermore, the structure of this polemic as an “opera” actually causes a fugue, where the arguments make sense in the context of Zizek’s corpus, but if one started here, it would be very easy to draw the wrong conclusions. The overlay of “denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance” seems to create a unity that often seemed to be lacking in the actual arguments, many of which anyone familiar with Zizek’s (quite humorous and often excellent) speeches would be recognize immediately.

Yet the reminder that many leftists who fear Zizek’s conclusions don’t want to hear: Liberal modernity and the current degeneration of capitalism aren’t likely to end in a bang, or a whimper, or in a crash, but a prolonged violent drowning. His call to return to a modified communism, one that has flipped Marx on its head and returned to (German) Idealism with sounder political economy, may be more precarious than it seems. This book doesn’t crash into the iceberg, but it doesn’t get you to shore either: That’s part of Zizek’s call, it’s time to start rowing. What remains unclear if Zizek has more of an answer here than any of us deck chairs on this titanic.

Review: Malcolm’s Bull’s Anti-Nietzsche (Verso, 2011)

In reading Nietzsche, one would never have thought to find Adorno pitted on the side of Nietzsche, but this is what one sees in the very first section of “Anti-Nietzsche” was a condemnation of the aesthetic as an attempt to defend other privileged but arbitrary notions of value. Anti-Nietscheanism is predicated first on seeing the manifestation of the aesthetic as a means of returning to “value” and defining power as the sovereign value over power. Bull’s thesis then proceeds wildly from there, but it is based on four premises that many readers of Nietzsche have wanted to avoid: that the “Will to Power” was a legitimate text despite the editorial hand of Nietzsche’s sister, two that we should take Nietzsche at his word at all times (like Italian scholars like Domenico Losurdo do), three that the reason why there are no anti-Nietzscheans is that both the Heideggerian readers of Nietzsche (Luc Nancy, Jacques Derrida, etc) and the other left readers of Nietzsche (who are rarely, if ever mentioned despite their influence such as Foucault, Bataille, Klossowski) apparently miss, and, four, that we need a leveling “negative” ecology that favors the Nietzsche’s positive ecology that privileges embracing the sub-human.

While well-written and interestingly, if idiosyncratically argued, Bull can’t seem to focus on his thesis long enough to fully develop what it means to read against Nietzsche to read as a sub-human. Not just to reject to Nietzsche’s vision of excellence, but to reject the domain of excellence itself. It seems like Bull cannot establish what this would mean except for a quip about letting the animals retake the art museums, or embracing the teaming mass of life under purely extra-utilitarian grounds, embracing the great beast and falling towards humanity. He briefly hints that some of this is implicit in Gramsci, and the idea of passive revolution (which Gramsci saw as tending either fascist or, as Trotskyists would put it, Bonapartist) as a means of embracing the non-heroic. The implications for this Bull doesn’t seem to be willing or perhaps able to articulate: What would such a political program look like? Is this a very complex restatement of the idea of the noble savage? Is this embracing a kind of Marxism beyond the proletarian to the bestial? It’s hard to say, and Bull doesn’t necessarily.

Yet hitting on the relationship between aesthetic value and economic value seems to be an articulation that is stated much more clearly and less abstractly in Pierre Bourdieu idea’s around social capital, but Bourdieu’s work doesn’t have the hints of an nihilistic, philistine, and hyper-egalitarianism with the non-human. Perhaps Peter Singer’s idea of the expending circle of empathy to all of life may apply here too, but then there is still a value there, so that isn’t as radical as Bull seems to want the negative ecology to be either. Oddly, so sub-humanism seems too demanding for even Bull to completely articulate.

Marginalia On Radical Thinking: Interview with KMO, part 1

KMO is the host of Z-Realm and C-Realm , and a thinker on collapse whose thoughts I have seen evolve through the course of his podcast. While not a hard leftist in the since that many of my interviewees, his perspective is among one of the smarter that some on the collapse end of the left. Avoiding a lot of the common tropes to deep green politics.

Skepoet: How would you describe your political and social journey over the past few years?

KMO: I used to hold pretty orthodox and straight-forward libertarian views. Starting in the 1990s, I voted for the Libertarian Party candidate in every presidential election. My support of the LP ended in 2008, when they put up Bob Barr, a career Drug War blowhard, as their presidential candidate. I’ve always gravitated to artists and creative types as friends, and they tend towards what in modern parlance is known as ‘liberalism,’ and I’ve learned through repeated hard experience with strained or terminated friendships that there is nothing to be gained by engaging self-identified progressives in political debate, so my self-identification as a libertarian comes more as a confession than as a loud and proud declaration.

Also, since I’ve been paying attention, it seems like more and more people who describe themselves as ‘libertarian’ strike me as basically ‘Rouge Elephants,’ i.e. Republicans who don’t want to pay taxes and who gravitate to libertarian ideology because they think it justifies their privileged position in the status quo. These folks seem to have no problem with the Drug War and with imperial ambition. Also, many Ayn Rand supporters gravitate to libertarianism, and they are some of the most obnoxious ideologues I’ve ever encountered. I would hate for someone who formed their opinion of libertarians based on encounters with these folks (I’m working really hard to avoid using the word ‘Randroids’ – I guess I just lost that battle) to slot me into the same mental category with Rand’s most strident and self-satisfied  devotees.

Socially, I’ve gone from being someone who very much wanted to live on a rural farmstead for quality of life reasons, to being a panicked Doomer who wanted to create a lifeboat situation away from major population centers, to being a Brooklynite who has taken a sort of Bodhisattva vow with respect to the potential for civilization-wide convulsions and catastrophes. I’ve made peace with the idea that happens to my society happens to me.

 S:   In the C-Realm podcast, there is a very deliberate attempt to generate consciousness, but from what perspective do you think the most useful  consciousness comes?

The perspective that I encourage and articulate, simply because it’s what I’m best able to represent, is a meta-perspective that contrasts various worldviews. I talk a lot about narratives, world-views, ideologies, belief systems, and, per Robert Anton Wilson, ‘reality tunnels.’

The two worldviews that I contrast most consistently on the C-Realm Podcast are the ‘Doomer’ and ‘Singularitarian’ perspectives. The Doomers see technological civilization as being completely and rigidly  dependent on fossil fuels and economic growth. They think that we have passed the point of global population overshoot, and that a Malthusian Correction is unavoidable at this point. The Doomers remain completely unimpressed with the rapid development of information technology. The Singularitarians on the other hand see peak oil, population overshoot, and in some cases even climate disruption, as non-issues. In their view, artificial Intelligence, nanotechnology, and other game-changing technologies will render these challenges trivial in the coming decades. Many of them think that humans will improve upon the standard issue human template and augment humanity with technology. This belief is called ‘Transhumanism.’ I think that both the Doomer and the Techno-utopian worldview identifies important trends and implications, but each of them seems to be laden with heavy doses of wishful thinking and enormous blind spots. I focus on these two belief systems, because I have been an ardent supporter of each of them and now describe myself as a recovering libertarian and Transhumanist.

There is certainly a lot of unacknowledged political baggage piggy-backing on both of these worldviews. As Adam Curtis pointed out in All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, Silicon Valley is rife with high-powered Ayn Rand devotees, and libertarian memes usually find a receptive environment in the brains of Singularitarians. Doomers tend to condemn libertarian ideology because they think that humans pursuing their own selfish ambitions have ruined the planet and brought humanity to the precipice of extinction.

I realize that I’ve drifted away from your question, so let me bring it back around and say that I think that embodied consciousness is critically important. I think that people reading text on screens and fighting ideological battles on-line or in print produce some very undesirable outcomes and counter-productive hostility. I spend a lot of time in front of the screen myself, and I’m grateful to have encountered Tai Chi and intermittent fasting, as these practices help keep me in my body when my ideological mind would drag me to absurd extremes. I know that you have interviewed more modern magic practitioners than I have and certainly know more about the history of the movement, but I’m attracted to the bodily focus of Chaos Magic and to the emphasis that the Mystery Schools place on self-knowledge.

S;  Do you find it interesting that both mystics and political radicals  (particularly in the Marxist tradition) speak in terms of  consciousness? What do you make that shared lingo?

KMO:  Before C-Realm was an interview-based podcast it was a web comic, and before it was a web comic it was a comic strip in a university newspaper. The title of the newspaper comic was ‘C.’ I came up with that title in my first semester in grad school studying philosophy in a Hegel seminar. The translation of The Phenomenology of Spirit that I used for that seminar used the English word ‘consciousness’ for Hegel’s ‘geist.’ I wrote the word ‘consciousness’ in my notes so many times that I came to abbreviate it as ‘C.’ I was thinking about creating a comic strip for the university newspaper, and when I wrote that letter C in my notes for the umpteenth time I thought, “Hey, that would be a good title for my comic strip.” So the C in C-Realm refers both to both the mystical and political senses of the word ‘consciousness’ which come together in Hegel’s tortuous dialectic of which Marx was so critical.

‘Consciousness’ is an ambiguous term with many meanings. I would find it intensely interesting if I thought that political radicals and mystics were consistently using the word in the same sense, but I do not think that this is the case. I think that ‘political consciousness’ tends to refer to consciousness as the holding of desirable beliefs and priorities while mystics make reference to an awareness, sense of identity, or point of view that transcends the physicality of the individual animal organism. (There are, of course, materialist practitioners of magic whom one could hold up as counter-examples, but then I would quibble with their inclusion in the category of ‘mystics.’) Now, you could say that the two meanings converge in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit and that Hegel’s ‘geist’ on its dialectical journey encompasses both meanings, but I doubt that very many contemporary revolutionaries or mystics are that well-versed in or concerned with the details of their own memetic lineages and that their usages of the word ‘consciousness’ have diverged and compartmentalized since Hegel’s day.

S.:  KMO., you predicted exactly my point on Geist and consciousness, but you are right most people don’t see the dialectical relationship.  Do you think that we should re-merge the two meanings of consciousness in a way that would make Marxists uncomfortable?  Ironically, I think the tendency of Marxists or Hegelian Leftists like Zizek to reintroduce lots of psychoanalytic theory into Marxism is actually an indication of the need here?

I sometimes worry that the left–and here I don’t mean liberals or Democrats, but socialists–don’t deal enough in ecological limit theory and how do deal with it.  Murray Bookchin, an anarchist I did respect, thought that neither the singularity types (techno-utopians) nor the primitivists or doomers had much a realistic way to handle the future: the thought socialized and ecologically oriented technology would be important to sustainability?   I actually worry about this, and I am more skeptical of the way this is all framed.  Do you think we will need is somewhere in-between the singulatarians and the doomers?

KMO:  I don’t think it is within my power or yours to re-merge these two meanings of consciousness for anyone but ourselves and the tiny fraction of the population who pay attention to us. There are several more uses for the word ‘consciousness’ other than the two described above. I don’t think that translators of Hegel have any particular claim to the correct definition of the English word ‘consciousness.’ While I think it’s useful to ask people to clarify what it is they mean when they use the term, I don’t see much point in telling them that they have to mean something by it that they didn’t intend. Also, I have no more interest in making Marxists uncomfortable than I do in perturbing the peace of mind of Theosophists or Millerites.

If I could wave a magic wand and instantly infuse the English-speaking population with a correct understanding of words and phrases, I would use that power to rescue ‘decimate’ and ‘begs the question’ from terminal misuse.

As far as ideology goes, I don’t see any indication that political fundamentalists on the left are any more interested in testing their worldviews against empirical data or enhancing them with interdisciplinary thinking than are fundamentalists on the right. As for injecting psychoanalytic theory into Marxism, I’d rather hear political theorists attempt to integrate elements of contemporary neuroscience or even sociobiology into their discourse than try to wring some utility from hundred year old Freudian lingo.

I gravitate to ecological metaphors when it comes to the question of what people should believe, what values they should hold, and how they frame questions. I don’t think everyone should hold the same beliefs and values. Over-specialization and lack of variety set up the conditions for catastrophic failure and extinction. I think it’s good that we have self-aggrandizing, monomaniacal techno-triumphalists as well as sack-cloth-and-ashes, misanthropic Doomers. I’m also encouraged that there are enough people interested in a synthesis of these viewpoints to comprise an audience for the C-Realm Podcast.

S:  On psychoanalytic theory, I think you’re right KMO, the Marixst left avoidance of neuroscience is telling. Psychoanalysis in both Freud and Lacan thought that neuroscience was necessarily, and I don’t think Zizek, for example, truly reject it.  However, dealing with the internal self is something that Marxism doesn’t give you a way to deal with–it is only the social self and it’s alienation that is important.  Given how deeply internalized this is, not dealing with the psyche, is a key problem.  This has led to supplementation.  Is that clearer?

KMO:  Yes. Right up to that last statement.  I don’t think that a political ideology should strive to be an exhaustive guide to living which includes every possible self-knowledge and self-help modality.  Any meme complex that includes an attempted prophylactic against new discoveries and innovation sets off my cult BS detector.

I do think that a failure to deal honestly with the innate features of  human psychology and physiology is a common feature of political belief systems and certainly is not unique to Marxism.

To be continued. 


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