Discussed in this post: 8 books (Paul’s Summons to Messianic Life; Radical Embodied Cognitive Science; Consider the Lobster; Sorcerer’s Screed; Angel Wings Splash Pattern; The Moviegoer; and American Gods) and 3 documentaries (O.J.: Made in America; Patience: After Sebald; and Fursonas).
1. Paul’s Summons to Messianic Life: political theology and the coming awakening by L. L. Welborn.
[I’ve, at long last, decided to complete my large Paul project – a text entitled “Paul and the Uprising of the Dead: Eschatology, Ethics, Economics, and Empires.” Consequently, you can expect to see more readings related to that topic to pop up on my reviews. I’ve got a bit of catching up to do.]
More of an essay than a book, Paul’s Summons to Messianic Life, is a fun reading of Paul’s injunction to “owe no one anything, except to love one another” and his summary of the Law in the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” It is, essentially, a reflection on Romans 13.8-14, informed by counter-imperial readings of Paul, first century Roman literature, and recent continental philosophy. Given the we seem to be going back to a form of political and economic imperialism that looks a lot like Rome during the Julio-Claudian dynasty, Welborn argues that we are uniquely situated to hear what Paul was saying to people who were oppressed by the power structures of the Roman Empire in the first century.
Without digressing into the scholarly debate regarding eschatologies present in Paul’s context, or what kind of eschatology Paul himself affirmed (debates Welborn is well aware of, although I do not think he is as upfront as he could be about where his position may be situated), I think it’s safe to say that Welborn presents a modified form of a realized eschatology that sees eschatological expectatation coming to fulfillment in the kairological awakening that attaches the “now time” to past the messianic event (Jesus). Here, the kairological moment is all about connecting the past to the present in the now, and the future is dethroned and removed from any consideration (there are problems with this realized approach, and Welborn himself points out some of them – including Paul’s reference to future time of both resurrection and judgement – but Welborn doesn’t address how these fit with his model and I’ll save that technical debate for another time).
By focusing on the now, Welborn wants to draw attention to the urgency, militancy, and actuality of what Paul and his co-workers were on about (although Welborn continues the scholarly trend of talking about “Paul” and “Paul’s churches” as though Paul was much more of a stand-alone figure than he actually was). A large part of this is awakening to a new communal or corporate identity. An analogy (one Welborn uses, although he is careful to draw out where the analogy does and does not work) is that of the proletariat arriving at class-consciousness. Within the Pauline notion of corporate identity, Welborn stresses two things: first, the need to be removed from systems of debt that trap people within the current structures of society (notably the system of patronage and benefaction); second, and concomitantly, the need to practice economic mutualism in order to ensure that all members of this newly constituted body are able to get by (I like this line of thought and I develop it a lot in my Paul project, speaking of a “sibling-based economic mutuality”; Welborn’s talk about showing mutuality with “the Other” and not simply the sibling, is a possible obstacle – but only superficially so, in my opinion, because part of what is happening in the ekklesiai associated with Paul and his co-workers is the transformation of the Other, who still remains Other, into a sibling – my largest quibble with Welborn here is really how he posits that there were rich members in some of the assemblies, when I suspect these members were only relatively richer but still poor).
Welborn then concludes that precisely this kind of action is needed in order for us to be awakened from the “profound sleep [that] has descended over most of the world because of the triumph of global capitalism.” He points to times in the past when awakenings have happened – Francis of Asissi, MLK Jr. – but is unaware, like most New Testament scholars who, in one way or another, are termed radical – that these awakened communities of mutuality already exist in many places (from the Zapatistas, to the Wet’suwet’en to the Power of Women group in Vancouver’s downtown eastside, to on and on and on the list could go). People in many places already are loving their neighbor in a way that resists capitalism’s “resurgence of that structured inequality, with all its attendant cruelties, which was the basis of the political economy of the Roman Empire.” I suspect that Welborn’s blindness to this is symptomatic of his own context – comfortably situated scholars will always be more deeply embedded in the Empire than in the pockets of the awakened. That for which they long is out there, if only they will give up their privilege to seek it out (which, as Welborn states in his book, is precisely the challenging facing those wealthier members who wish to be associated with the ekklesiai who are living, now, the past of the messianic event).
2. Radical Embodied Cognitive Science by Anthony Chemero.
Anthony Chemero, and other radical embodied cognitive scientist, really don’t want us to think of the brain as a computer or even as the absolutely central part of what makes us work as organisms. Instead, Chemero pushes for a nonrepresentational, embodied, ecological psychology that sees organisms and the environments which they are in (and which they shape and which shape them) as a bonded unit within a dynamic system. Thus, Chemero argues, cognition is best described “in terms of agent-environment dynamics, and not in terms of computation and representation.” I find much of this fascinating, continuing to develop trains of thought I picked up in recent readings about forests, evolution, epigenetics, niche construction, endosymbiosis, and hologenomes along with holobionts. I’m really trying hard to deconstruct my own personal conception of my self as an isolated individual and am working to attain some kind of corporate identity. I think I have already made steps in this in some ways — in terms of how I identify as a cishet white male middleclass settler, for example). But I am trying to take this further (hence the stuff about trees and, unfortunately, I’m afraid this all sounds rather new agey but, oh well). Chemero helps, although some of his concepts are very hard for me to believe in. Notably, the concept of direct perception of affordances (drawing heavily on Gibsonian ecological psychology) is one that I am turning around in my mind a lot to try and figure out what I make of it all. Direct perception seems impossible for someone, like me, so heavily influenced by theories about ideology… but what is perceived is affordances. Affordances really sound a lot like Heidegger’s “standing reserve” which itself is an ideological lens provided by certain technological developments (i.e. environmental shifts). So, maybe, with Chemero we have direct perception of ideologies… but ideologies that are shaped by an evolutionary process rather than by cultural processes? I don’t know… I also don’t know about Chemero’s objections to a lot of the computational and representational model because he keeps criticizing their approach for the way in which it requires “mental gymnastics” but he never really defines what “mental gymnastics” are or are not and it seems like this book itself requires a fair bit of mental gymnastics to write and to read/comprehend so I’m not sure where that leaves us…
Regardless, it is all very fascinating and recommended reading as I’m afraid this review really doesn’t come anywhere close to doing justice to both the actual content of the book and how stimulating that content is in the curious reader.
3. Consider the Lobster and other essays by David Foster Wallace.
There is something tragically ironic about the observation that DFW, who in this series of essays dubs Mailer, Updike, and Roth, the “Great Male Narcissists” or “GMNs,” suicided (on the day his wife had an art show opening, as I once read, although I’m unable to confirm or deny that now via Google search). It was his wife, Karen Green, who found him (years later she wrote that she worried that she broke his knees when she cut him down – the sound of which, his knees hitting the floor when the body fell, she claims she will never forget). His friend(ish? Frenemy?), the less brilliant but still talented writer (and also considered by many to be a GMN), Jonathan Franzen, also said later on that DFW killed himself in such a way as to inflict the maximum pain possible on those who loved him. But, as Wallace himself says in his essay about Updike, “when a solipsist dies… everything goes with him.”
(Interpolation: Knausgaard is another clear example of a GMN, despite his stay-at-home-dad status, so Emily Gould’s pithy term for Updike et al. as “midcentury misogynists,” may be misleading, if we think that misogyny is somehow less present in literature after these fellows. See also Coetzee, John Williams, etc.)
Consequently, for all the ways in which DFW shows the reader that he is painfully self-aware of all of the ways in which his identity is problematical (things like whitness, maleness, high class statusness, and heterosexualityness, all being tied to problematical and oppressive power dynamics — but also reaffirmed and defended at times, notably in relation to the need DFW seems to feel in terms of taking a stance on the abortion debate), one wonders if the reason why he is able to build such a withering and accurate criticism of Updike and the other GMNs, is because DFW is one of them – equally preoccupied with “sex and death (not necessarily in that order)” and unhappy because, despite his constant self-reflection, striving for sincerity, aversion to irony (which is part of what makes his suicide tragically ironic), and efforts not to be like those guys, he is still unaware of how much of an asshole he really is. Because, really, and here I am inclined to disagree with Franzen from a considerable distance, narcissists don’t suicide because of boredom (JF’s suggestion w/r/t DFW’s C.O.D.). Narcissists find themselves far too interesting to get bored to death. Instead, narcissists suicide because nobody can comfort them.
Even this collection reflects these GMN themes. The opening essay is a page-turning reflection upon the annual Adult Video News awards – a massive porn convention. It contains a fair bit of raunchy, sexually explicit material (death also comes early on in the essay with references to the suicides of famous porn stars). But the vulgar material is almost always quoted from the mouths of others or set out in a scientific, “I’m merely presenting the facts” manner, and followed by critical reflection from Wallace that distances himself from the content, while also engaging in personal reflection to normalize some of the content in order to distance himself from being the kind of writer who feels the need to distance himself from any kind of content, because can’t we just explore anything, really? In all his self-awareness, DFW is extremely aware of how the reader might read him as the author, and he is aware of how readers might read him as the author who is aware of how readers might read him, and so he does a constant, ever-deepening dance that is both brilliant content-wise and also brilliant in terms of self-presentation. This is why, after this piece which contains like ““I want to thank every beautiful woman I ever put my cock inside.” [Laughter, cheers, ovation.]” (this is the quoting part) and “she has a tattoo of a sundered valentine with the tagline HEART BREAKER on her right buttock and a tiny hairless mole just left of her anus” (this is the scientific description part), three essays later (the next essay is the aforementioned piece on Updike followed by a ho-hum piece of Kafka, reference to whom seems to be an ubiquitous necessity or rite of passage in social and literary theory these days), the theme is an extremely dry, technical, snooty and comparatively lengthy piece about the kind of work that goes into creating dictionaries. Wallace is showing off as a writer here – he is saying, yep, sure, I can write about sex and sell it, but I can also get you to sit down and read about dictionaries and the questions of usage and authority in American English (hence, the final essay in the collection, which is a passingly interesting piece about a Conservative talk-radio host, is also arranged in such a manner as to maximize the effort it takes to read it – this kind of gesture is both a form of showing off how one can write in a complicated manner and a way of taking an authorial stance that shows an aloofness for the conventions others might use to attract readers – which Wallace still uses in the main body of the article – which itself is still a way of attracting readers, which Wallace is self-aware enough to know, and so he tries to be very sincere about everything).
Because if there is one thing Wallace is (was?), it is (was?) a professional writer. Hence, while DFW and Nirvana had a lot in common – struggles with irony and sincerity, with fame and fandom, with simulacra and reality, with art and something more than art – and are both taken to be iconic voices of the ‘90s, I think his resemblance is more to Dave Grohl than it is to Kurt Cobain (although Cobain tends to get mentioned surprisingly often in retrospective pieces about DFW). DFW was 46 when he died (Grohl is 47 now; Cobain is a member of the infamous 27 club) and had mastered the art of writing and exploiting readers from a multitude of markets (I suspect he saw it as an exciting challenge to be able to connect with audiences from publications as different as Rolling Stone and Playboy, The New Yorker and The Paris Review, GQ and Esquire, Premiere and Gourmet). And it’s true – Wallace could really, really write and he could really, really get hype around his writing. Just like Dave Grohl can do the same with music (although, self-aware and pretentious and even more subtly pretentious for flagging it as pretentious, disclaimer: Dave Grohl’s post-Nirvana music never really floated my boat, but I also never really dug Nirvana all that much either; I was more into Soundgarden and Smashing Pumpkins). Both DFW and DG were able to do all of this, maintaining rock star status in their relative fields, for a lot of years. Cobain couldn’t hack it. Wallace could, until he went off his meds. But Grohl seems to be doing pretty alright for himself – in part, perhaps, because he seems to be very sincerely having fun. And when fun is sincere in a certain kind of a way, a certain kind of self-forgetting can happen – here, one does not forget that one is an asshole; rather, one forgets to be an asshole.
4. Sorcerer’s Screed: The Icelandic Book of Magic Spells by Skuggi.
“He who wishes to ride through the air like a witch,” Skuggi informs us, “shall inscribe this stave [pictured in the book] on a bleached horse’s skull with two types of blood: blood from the man himself as well as from a horse.” The blood is carefully proportioned and drawn from specific body parts (beneath the big toe of the man’s left foot and beneath the frog of the hoof of the horse’s right foreleg). The stave must be drawn with a chicken feather but, in order to then have the magic take effect (whereupon the man will be able to mount the ghostly skeletal horse and ride it through the air faster than lightning, “creating a great whistling sound”), it is necessary to have a “witch-ride bridle.” This is created by “digging up a newly buried man and cutting a strip of skin from the length of his spine.” The dead man’s lingual bone is to be used for the bit. A spell is needed to make it take effect (this spell is notably absent from Skuggi’s formula meaning that even those willing to dig up and skin the dead – see also the Stave for skinning a dead friend from the waist down and wearing his skin so that his scrotum, overlaying your own, ends up being an bottomless coin purse [literally!] – aren’t able to put it to the test). And on and on the book goes. Staves for defense from enemies, for winning girls (and chess games!), for waking the dead, recovering stolen property, seeing ghosts, defeating your enemy, etc. Blood is often drawn from your septum, your nipple, your hands, and your feet, but it seems worthwhile given the possible outcome. It’s a fun book and beautifully put together. The advice on how to interact with the spirits or ghosts or demons or revenants one summons or banishes is frustratingly vague though, so let the reader beware.
5. Angel Wing Splash Pattern by Richard van Camp.
Richard van Camp is a member of the Dogrib (Tlicho) Nation from what we settlers have called Fort Smith, Northwest (occupied) Territories, Canada. He’s a good storyteller. He mixes modern and traditional forms of storytelling (fiction with truth in other words [in that order]). I’m a big fan of stories that mix these things together (see below on Sebald). There is a haunted quality to much of what he writes – poverty haunted by beauty, hurt haunted by tenderness, the blind haunted by visions, the hold haunted by the young, and roads haunted by the dead. Props to David Driedger for recommending the author to me. I will read more of his stuff (and the books are short and read fast, so if you are trying to impress people by posting lists of how many books you read in a month, then it’s great for that!)
6. The Moviegoer by Walker Percy.
I was reading page twenty-one of Avon’s Southern Writers Series edition of Walker Percy’s “The Moviegoer,” first published in 1960, when I became aware that all the stories that we pass down from generation to generation do not only speak of the past, or of historical constants like fear or wonder or beauty or truth, but that they also give us warnings about things yet to come. While describing some of the various krewes that had assembled for the celebration of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Binx Bolling, the narrator and protagonist says the following:
The other day a group of Syrians from Algiers formed a krewe named Isis.
It is a passing remark, the importance of which, within the novel, is not so much the content (Syrians, Algiers, and Isis are not mentioned again) as it is to establish a certain tone that is found within the reflections of the narrator and this tone, in turn, is a guide to the character of the narrator.
It is only now, fifty-six years later, that the content leaps out at the reader. How could any previous reader been able to detect this warning? How might I be able to revisit the books that I have read to see what other warnings are written in there? Written plain as day, as explicit as ever, but invisible to those who do not know and who cannot ever imagine that one day a group of Syrians will form a group named Isis that will end up becoming one of the most influential military, religious, and political institutions in the second decade of the twenty-first century.
Is Percy alone in being a secret prophet? For example, on page one hundred and sixty-three of the already mentioned edition, he writes:
Everyone jokes about such things, but if businessmen were not trusting of each other and could not set their great projects going on credit, the country would collapse tomorrow and be no better off than Saudi Arabia.
Is this also a warning? Or does he only include one prophesy per book? Or do all great but hardly read books contain warnings? I don’t know and I thought about maybe writing a story exploring this line of thought – that a person thinks that the great novels of the past contain all the knowledge of the future and so he spends his time combing through literature trying to make the connections before events happen… and then I felt that Umberto Eco has already written this story (over and over and over again) so I decided against it.
7. American Gods: A Novel by Neil Gaiman.
Several Neil Gaiman fans have told me that American Gods is his best book. I haven’t read much by him. I’ve read parts of the Sandman series of graphic novels, which really made him famous (first underground, and then mainstream and I should really revisit those – I’m not sure if I was at a place in life to appreciate them as much as I might now), and I’ve read Good Omens, which he co-authored with Terry Pratchett, and that’s it. So I figured, hey, might as well try another. The book is large, but it reads quickly. It seems to me that Gaiman is following in Douglas Adams footsteps, although he doesn’t strike me as quite as clever or funny (but I haven’t read Adams in over a decade, so the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy Trilogy in However Many Parts may strike me as less funny now). I’d say that American Gods was fun, in a pulp fiction kind of way (like John Grisham for geeks who appreciate British humour, maybe?) but it didn’t rock my world and I doubt I’ll be looking at any of Gaiman’s books again. I bet it’d make a good movie or TV show. I think Gaiman is more of a writer who works better when paired with some kind of visual medium (Sandman, already mentioned, was a good comic example of that; Coraline is a great film example).
8. Folktales of China edited by Wolfram Eberhard.
I continue to explore the world via folktales. I can’t say that this collection really thrilled me although several of the stories were fun (I suspect the translation my be partially to blame). I’m not sure that I thought of anything new or unique or exciting to say about folk- and fairytales that I haven’t said before. I still think it’s a very good idea to read them. Einstein would agree (“if you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairytales. If you want your children to be more intelligent, read them more fairytales” and I suspect the same still holds for a good many adults) but, then again, Einstein also really wanted FDR to develop the A-bomb so, yeah, there’s that.
1. O.J.: Made in America (2016) directed by Ezra Edelman.
If you had told me that a 7.5 hour documentary about O.J. Simpson was going to be not only one of the best documentaries of 2016 but also one of the best documentaries of the last five years, I would have probably looked at you like you didn’t have any sense of what makes a good documentary. And I would have been wrong because O.J.: Made in America is all of these things. It is a fascinating study of class, race, and the American Dream/Nightmare as it plays out in Los Angeles and in the life of Orenthal James Simpson. Recommended viewing.
2. Patience: After Sebald (2012) directed by Grant Gee.
I don’t usually watch biographies, let alone biographies about authors, let alone biographies that focus upon a single novel by that author (a novel I haven’t even read) in order to explore his life but, dang, I’m glad I watched this documentary about W. G. Sebald and his book, The Rings of Saturn. Sebald’s writing is fascinating, it gets inside of you and moves things around well after you’ve finished reading (I’ve only read Austerlitz). This documentary is obviously a labour of love and does a fine job of exploring Sebald and his work. I don’t know who I’d recommend it to… others deep enough into the literati to already be familiar with Sebald, I suppose. I suspect that Sebald will be the next author whose writings I start to deliberately work through in full so he’ll be showing up some more around here (the last author I did this with was Cormac McCarthy, although I suppose I’m doing the same with DFW but at a much slower pace).
3. Fursonas (2016) directed by Dominic Rodriguez.
Initially, Fursonas feels like a bit of a let down for those who are looking for a fascinating look into a subculture that is often considered deviant (i.e. the world of Furry fandom), but in retrospect it seems like the only appropriate and respectful way to journey into the world of a group of people whose identities, passions, and kinks have been exploited by all kinds of members of the media in order to bring in viewers or readers. Fursonas is more of an insider look at how Furries view the media, and the ways in which other members of the community interact with the media (or in public). It is a study of both the solidarity and the bullying that can take place in communities of people who feel like they need to circle the wagons and defend themselves from the outside world. The Director (himself a Furry) is trying to start a conversation where people feel safe exploring a topic they have been urged (sometimes quite forcefully) to treat as taboo. I enjoyed the film quite a lot. It’s an interesting look, not so much at a subculture that the general American public treats as deviant, but at how communities respond to external ostracism and how power operates internally in communities where people like to brand themselves as open-minded and inclusive and lack a formal (or institutional a la Weber) hierarchy of power.