Category Archives: Reviews
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.
*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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Review: The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, Corey Robins, Oxford University Press, USA
So much for the Utopianism of the left, we have to understood the inverse utopianism of the right? At least, that is what I thought, but it appears that I may have been premature on this assessment. For those who read this blog, many of you know I reference Corey Robin’s quite a bit and I have quite enjoyed his interviews and his essays. Indeed, The Reactionary Mind is a braid of linked essays divided into two related sections. The first section is the popular manifestation of conservative intellectual tradition, and the second is on the profound relationship between conservatism and violence.
First, a few caveats: there are a few points in which I have somewhat profound disagreements with Robins, and second I found some of the essays slightly repetitive because they were written to be read individually so many themes and points are hit upon blatantly by restatement because it would have been necessary in the original printing of these reviews and essays. While Robin’s style is punchy, often funny, and yet intellectually serious, the nature of the essays themselves sometimes grated on me when reading the book as a whole in a few sittings. When I read the book as a collection of essays and ignored that Robin’s essentially laid out his thesis in the introduction, I enjoyed these much more as reading qua reading.
Robin’s thesis is highly illuminating: conservatism is not traditionalism of either capitalism or the ancient regime, although it is tied to both. Conservatism is the reactionary impulse to preserve real privileges and ways of life. Furthermore, conservatism maintains itself in the popular mode by mimicking left tactics to expand the circle of contempt: every man and every woman becomes lord of someone who they can take part in the oppression writ small. It’s enough to make you wonder if perhaps David Brooks isn’t really Calhoun with a friendly face.
Robin’s does show, quite convincingly, there is a consistency to the Euro-American right since it emerged after the French revolution. It was fundamentally different from the soft traditionalism that supported the ancient regime before the French Revolution. Oddly, however, my favorite essay on the topic was the departure from that theme: the essay on Edward Luttwark and John Gray which Robin’s partially disowns. Indeed, in this essay, Robins seem to hint that some of the values of pre-capitalist world are antithetical to the world conservatives have actually created and the abandonment of people like Luttwark and Gray betray that vision. Yet in opposition to modernity in entirety, their may support the welfare state and accept the cultural contradictions of capitalism, as even Daniel Bell acknowledged, they cannot come up with a coherent politics to support it.
Another theme touched upon by Robins, but only touched upon, primarily in his essays on the Anton Scalia and Ayn Rand, is that liberalism particularly has not been up to the job of actually opposing the right. Indeed, Scalia is allowed a rhetoric wit and scathing barbs in the court, but no liberal or moderate on the court returns the favor. In fact, when barbed Scalia is often thrown off his game. Furthermore, in the Ayn Rand section, “Garbage and Gravitas,” Robins points out that often liberal and left readers of Ayn Rand have tried to give her more credit that she earns out of a want to show that large portion of the American public is enamored with someone as contemptuous as Rand. Yet as even a conservative friend of mine once said, “Rand is popular because she is elitism for the masses. It’s that simple.”
Another thing the second half of Robin’s book is good for is an antidote to Andrew Sullivan and Sam Tanenhaus (as well as lesser known and more radical conservatives like Thomas Woods) that conservatism has traditionally been anti-war. While there is a conservative tradition that Robin’s ignores that does live up to this standard–Jay Alfred Nock and the America First tradition is explicitly anti-war–the practice of the majority of conservatives since Burke has to glorify in violence as an expression of sublimity even if that violence actually leads to a more mechanized view of power, which is essentially what the conservatives wanted to avoid.
This, however, brings me to my critique of the book: to maintain a consistent view of conservatism in both sections, Robins did have to ignore parts of the conservative tradition and include other thinkers who reactionary credentials are questionable. As I have already noted, Robins does not comment on the traditional anti-war conservatives in America nor does he mention the anti-war conservatives who opposed George W. Bush and their libertarian allies. Indeed, one of the largest anti-war sites was run by primarily be paleo-conservatives and libertarians such as Justin Riamondo. Ron Paul got his street-cred, however questionable you find it, by opposing the warfare state. Furthermore, following Paxton, Robin’s sees fascism as essentially conservative and enlists George Sorel’s as part of his argument on the decadence cycle and the relationship to violence. I find this misleading, even in his so-called proto-fascist stage, Sorel’s was essentially advocating anarchistic syndicalism and his relationship to both Marxism and anarchism is important. Fascism, while I think was a means of maintaining a form of capitalism which functioned like mercantilism, has much more than just a tactical similarity to left-wing thought. While idiots like Jonah Goldberg like to equate liberalism and fascism for incredibly facile reasons, fascism was not merely a defense of the ancient regime. It was an attempt to be both progressive and conservative at once: to ape socialism and keep a ruling class, but also to fundamentally produce a new society not rooted in old privileges. Also, Robins ignores the admittedly hyper-majority of the new far right such as radical traditionalism because these thinkers are not merely defending past privilege like Burke or even Reagan. They truly are inverse utopians.
This flaws aside, Robin’s book is still entirely worth engaging with and the overall thrust of his thesis is, in my opinion, correct. Conservatism may be on its death throw because it has nothing really to oppose: leftism has been thrown out of the sphere and is only reemerging from its own ashes, New Labor and Democratic Leadership committee has become the current traditionalism of the liberal establishment unable to do anything new but ape the right and empower the business class, and so the right has become decadent and overreaching. Robin’s end note is one of hope rooted in conservative fears of the decline of their own movement in a lack of real opposition. Indeed the view idea of conservatism implies it: one must be on the defense to be interested in conserving something. This is obviously no longer the case in for most conservatives.