Discussed in this post: 6 Books (The Drowned and the Saved; After Nature; The Great Leveler; Salvation by Allegiance Alone; The Remains of the Day; The Last Western); 4 Movies (Boy; Raw; Nostalghia; It’s Only The End of The World); 2 Documentaries (Nobody Speak; The Stairs).
1. The Drowned and the Saved by Primo Levi.
I know that racialized and gendered violence are deeply embedded into capitalism, which has partnered with nationalism, settler colonialism, and a great deal of religiosity in our context but, still, the increasing boldness, shamelessness, smarminess, and public arrogance of white pride, white power, white nationalist, white separatists, or neo-Nazi groups is something that frequently leaves me gobsmacked. I have some t-shirts that say things like “Race Traitor” or “Antifascist” or “Black Lives Matter” and it is appalling to me, how many more people in the last year, have demonstrated their disapproval of those shirts to me or even approached me in an antagonistic, threatening or confrontational manner because of them. In fact, when traveling to smaller, almost all white towns in Southwestern Ontario I have sometimes considered changing out of those shirts – because I’m not a fan of experiencing threats of violence or aggression, especially if there is the possibility of that impacting Jess who is usually the one traveling with me – but I can’t bring myself to do that because, seriously, how the fuck can people have a problem with opposing fascism or recognizing that white supremacy is bullshit or simply acknowledging, yeah, black lives really do matter. If white people (they are always white – the only exception, a significant exception, being cops from racialized populations who, along with white cops everywhere, also appear to be offended by these shirts) are so into fascism and racism and themselves that they are even willing to gloat about things like Naziism, then it’s all that more important for those who aren’t into that shit to be equally shameless and public and not afraid to proclaim what we believe. This is especially the case for those of us who are white because, look, if I’m a bit sketched out going to small white towns (and I’m so white I glow not just in the dark but in the light), then how the heck are members of racialized populations supposed to feel? I was thinking about all these things while reading The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi’s final reflection about the difficulties associated with how we are going about remembering or forgetting or renarrating the Holocaust. Levi is concerned that people are all too keen to excuse themselves and to forget or refuse to try and grapple with the immensity of what took place and the warning it has given us about what we still might do to each other. History, unfortunately, is proving him right.
2. After Nature by W. G. Sebald.
I am always a bit suspicious when an author gains a certain amount of fame after dying and the publishers start pumping out earlier, overlooked works or incomplete later works. Sometimes these texts stand up to the standard set by the material published by the author while alive, but often they are subpar and seem to be a bit of a money grab (although I’m sure they are very helpful to scholars specializing in the study of that particular author). This has been going on quietly in the corner of the literary world that is fascinated by the writing of W. G. Sebald. However, I am sufficiently enamoured by his writing to be willing to read something that may be subpar because subpar for Sebald still strikes me as significantly better than most other writers. After Nature is a poem Sebald composed prior to the publication of his first novel. He seems to be finding his voice and, in particular, his seemingly effortless but wonderfully complex manner of composing and pacing sentences. There are moments in it that compare to some of his novels but, for the most part, it does feel like a preparatory work. Still, poems don’t (usually) take long to read and I’m happy to have read this one.
3. The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-first Century by Walter Scheidel.
Looking back over the course of human history, Walter Scheidel (whom I first encountered because he did some really great economic modeling in relation to the Roman Empire in the first century CE) argues that only four things have ever contributed to significant economic leveling resulting in greater equality over longer periods of time. These four things are: mass mobilization warfare (like WWI and WWII); massive revolutions (on the scale of the Russian and Chinese revolutions – the French revolution doesn’t get there and the Haitian revolution, alas, isn’t explored); full societal collapse; and plagues (like the Black Death when it swept through Europe and the Middle East). In the absence of these things, Scheidel rather convincingly argues, inequality tends to constantly rise no matter what else we do. If this picture isn’t bleak enough already, Scheidel’s conclusion is even bleaker – given the ways laws, markets, and technologies have changed since the world wars and great revolutions of the twentieth century (indeed, one wonders if markets have globalized the ways that they have in order to protect the considerable amount of wealth that was lost in those events) even these modes of leveling are unlikely to be the great equalizers they once were. And so, although wealth accumulation ultimately always leads to some kind of devastating crisis, and Scheidel has no historical reason to doubt that the massive (and now unequaled) wealth accumulation taking place in our time will not also lead to some kind of devastation, he is hesitant to conclude that anything comparable to equality will be the result (I don’t think Scheidel is in the “anti-civ” camp, I doubt that he is even very, if at all, aware of them, but much of his analysis is similar to theirs – although he covers much broader territory much more thoroughly; his conclusions, however, aren’t nearly as hopeful).
Now, there are two further observations I want to make. First, Scheidel significantly neglects studying various Indigenous populations that may have had very different ways of understanding things like wealth, property, and the distribution of goods. Perhaps this is because the kind of data upon which he relies is the sort privileged by Western models of science, research, and knowledge and doesn’t leave as much room for Indigenous methodologies or models of knowledge transmission. The neglected question here is what about societies that aren’t nearly as much in need of leveling as the ones Scheidel examines? I feel that he does not give these the attention they deserve. By saying this I don’t seek to romanticize other cultures or ways of sharing life together, but there are significant differences that are neglected. Second, the kind of leveling Scheidel examines, since it is strictly a numbers game he is playing, is premised mostly upon a huge amount of devastation wherein the very poor are most greatly impacted but the very rich also suffer as well. Often, the leveling means a shit ton of the poorest die and the super duper fucking obscenely rich fall down to just being super duper rich and both of these things lead to a statistically much more “equal” society (although sometimes there are some longer term benefits for the poorer classes and some longer term restraints on the wealthier classes). However, if one did not simply look at this question from the perspective of wealth distribution and gini coefficients, but looked at societies that, for example, engaged in more collective forms of decision making, held a much greater suspicion of structures that created hierarchies between people, and that take an entirely different tact to notions of property, I wonder what would result. This then leads back to my first comment – if we start with societies where inequality is or was not already structured into the developmental trajectory of the structures shaping life together to nearly the extent that we find it in the various civilizations Scheidel examines, then what are the conclusions we end up with?
4. Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King by Matthew W. Bates.
Reading Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity by David Desilva fifteen or so years ago now was a major “aha!” moment for me in my understanding of the early Jesus movement, the so-called Pauline texts, and my transition away from understanding Jesus and Paul and the New Testament in a strictly religious or spiritual sense and beginning to understand much more of the social, cultural, political, and economic implications of everything they were on about. Getting into Richard Hays and the whole pistis Christou debate added to this (along with a ton of other readings oriented more around socioeconomic and political factors) and I became increasingly convinced that the traditional Christian understandings of pistis as a reference to “faith” (the act of believing or intellectually assenting to the veracity of certain propositions) were almost entirely missing the point and, in fact, pistis, is much more accurately translated as “faithfulness,” “loyalty,” and “allegiance” (a matter that I address in the final chapter of my long, never-ending Paul book #CallMeCasaubon #TheKeyToAllMythologies). Consequently, I was excited to see that this reading of pistis seemed to be generating some buzz in some New Testament circles in the last few years. I thought I’d look and see where others were going with this and Matthew Bates’ book seemed like a decent enough place to start. Unfortunately, I was disappointed. So, disappointed, in fact, that it’s hard to know where to begin.
So, I’ll begin with the small disappointments or more personal quibbles. First, although published by an imprint that contains the word “academic” in its name, there isn’t much that is academic about this book. There is a lot of fluff and filler in here. It reads more like a Sunday sermon (and stories about Sunday sermons abound) than the kind of academic work I was hoping to find. Second, a considerable amount of the book isn’t dedicated to the question of pistis. It goes much further afield (although, of course, everything is all connected.. but I didn’t want to read a book about everything). I notice this with up-and-coming Evangelical or post-Evangelical scholars (often inspired by N. T. Wright who isn’t known for his editing skills…) – they want to retell the whole Bible and reorient the reader to the key themes of the whole narrative because growing up in church totally misled them and now that they have a far richer understanding of their sacred texts they want to share that with everyone else as well. Unfortunately for me, I wasn’t as interested in all this (although, mea culpa, I’m sure I’ve been guilty of doing this in the past). Thirdly, I really wish New Testament scholars who are on some kind of trajectory away from the Right or Far Right, would stop talking about Jesus as “King.” While it relates to some Pauline themes, Paul never calls Jesus “King” (and “enthronement” shouldn’t be instantly read into references to Jesus as “Lord,” which is something Bates likes to do, like when he exegetes Ro 1.1-5). Why use this word when perfectly adequate substitutes exist both in the Pauline texts and in our contemporary context? More than that, in the Gospels, Jesus explicitly rejects and vehemently mocks any notion of him being a king (see here for more on that). I get what people are on about and what they are trying to subvert by doing this, but it’s shitty scholarship and, I think, not actually very subversive (or, at a minimum, not very successfully subversive).
However, my biggest disappointment with Bates’ book is that, even when it comes to the central motif, pistis as allegiance, Bates still manages to eff it all up. He does this in multiple ways. First of all, his motivating question “what does God require of us in order for us to attain eternal salvation?” (the answer being “pistis understood as allegiance) depoliticizes and spiritualizes the subject matter in a way that does violence to the texts he is drawing from — Jesus and Paul are very much into a much more material, here-and-now movement of salvation and liberation from (amongst other things) oppression. Even when Bates tries to make eternal salvation more earthy sounding, saying the goal isn’t heaven but heaven coming to earth in the end, this is still so future-oriented as to be mostly useless in our present moment (although I’m sure he would argue that this requires us to have a new understanding of our role as stewards of creation and all that [cf. p197], but I’ve got issues with that, too, because I think the notion of “stewardship” is just a mask for abusive paternalism — Kelly S. Johnson gets into this but see also a lot of the multitude of criticisms of any kind of paternalistic care arising from the targets of that care and their accomplices). Secondly, and even more problematical, Bates focuses almost entirely on allegiance as intellectual agreement and verbally professed fealty. He does mention a third element of allegiance – enacted loyalty – but he almost entirely neglects it and devotes most of his attention the first element. Essentially, pistis is described as allegiance but allegiance is then heavily defined as, well, faith in the traditional sense! The emphasis falls on the fact that, in order to be (eternally) saved (when heaven comes to earth), there is a “bare minimum of facts to which me [sic] must cognitively agree before we can be saved.” These facts are eight propositions that Bates’ offers as an outline of the Gospel as he understands it. According to Bates, one then demonstrates one’s intellectual agreement with these propositions via some kind of verbal, public profession of allegiance. About what enacted allegiance looks like, Bates says very little and even less that is concrete. Just, like, “fight the good fight” and “flee vices such as greed” and “pursue virtues” and stuff (p98). Maybe also, um, be filled with the Spirit so you can do the good works the Law was aiming at all along (p119). Oh, and for sure stay away from sensuality, lots of stuff to do with sex, getting drunk, raging, being envious, and don’t even get started on idols and sorcery (p125). Basically, like, don’t sin, be righteous, stop being so hateful and worldly, and love other Christians (p126). So, basically, bourgeois morality vaguely stated. So there may be a little room for negotiation here or there. What’s nonnegotiable, if one is hoping to be saved, is the intellectual assent (therefore, according to Bates, even if people act exactly like Jesus, if they don’t believe the key points, they are doomed [p200]). Even, at the end, when Bates tries to give concrete examples of people he knows enacting allegiance (pp208-209), all he can offer are middleclass acts of piety or paternalistic acts of charity – all in all, nothing that comes close to comparing to the empire-shaking threat of a movement that arose amongst the enslaved, colonized, vanquished, dispossessed, and left for dead in the Eastern portion of the Roman Empire in the first century CE.
All of this gets allegiance completely backwards. Allegiance is a doing first and foremost. What is believed or said only matters to the extent that it impacts the doing. The propositions and ideas are negotiable – the actions are not. Furthermore, allegiance to a person justly condemned by the Law and executed by the civic and imperial authorities as a terrorist, should inspire a certain kind of doing. Bates misses all of this and, really, it seems to me, has mostly found a way to reaffirm traditional bourgeois Christianity. If I may wager a guess, it seems he has fled Calvin for Wright but, by doing so, has merely moved out of the fire and into the frying pan.
5. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro.
Like the British butler who narrates The Remains of the Day to us, Ishiguro is discrete. He doesn’t mean to intrude upon us and he wishes to stick with the facts, stated as simply as possible. The lyricism of Latin American authors like Márquez or the pornographic bluntness of American authors like McCarthy are simply out of place in the great country houses of British gentlemen who gathered to try and shape the course of world history to nobler ends. And yet, just as the butler secretly reads romance novels (to gain a better understanding of the language of the upper classes, he says), so also there is a beauty and poeticism to Ishiguro’s way of crafting this story. Because, while the butler’s discretion reflects class biases coupled with a lack of self-awareness and and inability to acknowledge difficult things, Ishiguro’s discretion seems to stem from a preference to explore difficult things in a gentle manner. I enjoyed this book.
6. The Last Western by Thomas S. Klise.
Holy moley, I wanted to like this book and the first 100 pages really drew me in but after that I felt like I was reading a 300 page sermon. It’s a bit too bad because, really, the actual events that transpire problematize the preachiness of the preaching but, dangit, there is so much more preaching than events that I didn’t really want to think about that too much after because I was just relieved to be finished. Plus, you know, I find hardcore pacifists hard to take these days… but if I was still into that and theology or the church I probably would have loved this book.
1. Boy (2010) directed by Taika Waititi.
Taika Waititi is brilliant. I don’t know anyone else who can walk the line he walks between devastation and humour (with a little magic thrown in – but not Disney magic, more like the magic of the inexplicable of daily life) without ever falling into something that feels disrespectful or surreal. He knows that in suffering, people still laugh and absurd things still happen, but he does not laugh at suffering or consider those who suffer to be absurd. They are profoundly human. And beautiful. Watching Boy, a wonderful film about an Indigenous kid and his younger brother hoping to reconnect with their dad after he is released from jail, I was reminded of the kind of banter that would go around the dinner table at the drop-in program I volunteered at for male-identified sex workers (the program itself was called Boys’R’Us, a name chosen by the participants in the program which, I think, is a pretty vivid snapshot into who constituted this community). Here, there were all kinds of laughter, absurd scenarios discussed, even though most everyone was working the lowest track possible and many were dying of HCV, and HIV/AIDS, not to mention the frequency of bad dates that took place on that track. I sometimes feel like I’ve never since then been a part of a community that felt so… real. Waititi really captures something of this. I highly recommend this film.
2. Raw (2016) directed by Julia Ducournau.
The Bechdel-Wallace tests declares that, as a bare minimum, a movie should: (a) include two women; (b) who talk to each other at some point; (c) about something other than a man (in some variations it is also required that the women be named characters). It is believed that only about half of movies pass this test. I was thinking about this test after watching Ducournau’s Raw because it is a movie that revolves around two sisters (Justine and Alexia) who drive the dialogue of the film and spend a considerable amount of time doing girl specific things. The only named male part, Adrien, is a gay, French-Arabic (i.e. not white) man, and the other men play such small roles that they don’t warrant names (I’m fairly certain there is also no conversation just between men in this film but I’m not positive as I only thought of the Bechdel-Wallace test a few days after watching). Raw, in other words, is a feminist tour de force in a genre dominated by men and usually fraught with horrendous presentations of gender and sexuality, and violence in relation to gender and sexuality. Now, granted, because this is a French horror film it does not square well with horror categories of the sort created by Hollywood. Just as French horror is known for the very discomforting realism of the violence it portrays, the plot itself feels much more realistic – i.e. this is not so much a horror film as a film where something horrible happens. It’s fantastic. I’m very excited about what up and coming feminist directors are bringing to this genre and how they are revolutionizing it (The Love Witch by Anna Biller also comes to mind; although I am less sure of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night by Ana Amirpour and even less sure of The Babadook by Jennifer Kent, despite all the praise they garnered). But Raw isn’t just strong as a feminist and a horror-but-very-different-kind-of-horror film. It is also well acted, well staged, and well told. If you can handle a few stomach churning scenes, I highly recommend it. I’m keen to see whatever Ducournau does next.
3. Nostalghia (1983) directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.
I don’t know why it didn’t hit me sooner but, after watching Nostalghia, I realized that Terrence Malick is basically attempting to make his own Tarkovsky films but within the context of late 20th century, early 21st century America. That said, Nostalghia feels a bit like staring at Italian Renaissance paintings for two hours while a narrator attempts to pontificate like Dostoyevsky or Gogol but never really gets there. Certainly, this is film as art, created by a talented artist, but I can’t say it connected much with me personally (which, of course, it’s not required to do). A lot of the talent found in, say, Andrei Rublev is present here but Nostalghia feels much more self-indulgent (and it was a film deeply personal to Tarkovsky as it follows an Russian artist in exile in Italy, and was made shortly after Tarkovsky had fled Russia for Italy). Of course, all artists (and all of us), tend to be self-indulgent in how we create and express ourselves but sometimes it can feel a little overbearing. I feel like Malick has done that more and more in his films since The Tree of Life and, watching Nostalghia, I can see now more of where that came from.
4. It’s Only the End of the World (2016) directed by Xavier Dolan.
It’s Only the End of the World is a movie based on a play written in the ‘90s about a 34 year old gay man (who writes and directs plays) who goes home to tell his family he is dying of AIDS but who, ultimately due to various family dynamics, is never able to have that conversation with them. It was written and directed by a gay man who died of AIDS at the age of 38. This scenario is, perhaps, something that folks from heteronormative communities may not have thought much about – everyone has probably considered the whole “coming out” conversation in some way, at some point, but I’m not sure how many people have considered what it was (and, in some cases, still is) like for those same folks to also tell oppressive, phobic, and exclusionary families that, hey, I’m dying now. Unfortunately, I don’t think Dolan does a very good job telling this story and focuses too much on bouncing back and forth between talking (or yelling) heads. I think he kind of knows he is missing something and so he takes these lingering shots of the actors’ faces from various angles, delaying a scene, drawing out a look, because he wants the viewer to infuse the whole thing with considerably more meaning or pathos or whatever than he was able to create. Certainly talented actors are not lacking (several big names from French film are present here) but Dolan’s technique seems to flatten all of that and suck the life out of them. I don’t know, maybe I’m biased because I thought Krisha was a much better presentation of a family that has been divided now trying to reunite many years later over a meal, but I don’t think this film lived up to the praise it received from the critics.
1. Nobody Speak: Hulk Hogan, Gawker and the Trials of the Free Press (2017) directed by Brian Knappenberg.
After watching Knappenberg’s documentary about Aaron Schwarz (The Internet’s Own Boy), I was pretty excited to see Nobody Speak (and the reviews it was getting helped raise that excitement). Unfortunately, I think Knappenberg got a little lost in this one. The story involving Hulk Hogan is interesting enough (especially when we learn that some Silicon Valley billionaire whom Gawker pissed off is actually funding Hogan’s legal team) but that’s not really enough for a feature length film and so Knappenberg starts reaching out to try and explore a little more about how the uber rich (individuals and corporations) are trying to engage in activities that influence or control the “the free press.” Here, the movie fell pretty flat and seemed somewhat disjointed or rushed. I was disappointed in this film.
2. The Stairs (2017) directed by Hugh Gibson.
This is a biopic centered on three substance users (including one former sex worker) who live and now work (mostly) in social services for substance users in Regent Park, (which used to be) one of Toronto’s largest communities of people experiencing poverty. As far as biopics go, it is mostly very well done. Some of the jumps are a bit abrupt and I’m a bit uncomfortable with that (given that I think Gibson places them the way he does in order to try and shock the viewer), but mostly I think he does a pretty decent job of demonstrating the complexities of what it’s like trying to live in poverty with a(n ongoing) history of substance use, years of trauma, and a desire to care for others. A lot of Gibson’s focus is on what people in the film refer to as “addiction” but I wish he focused a little more on poverty itself and how it drives all of this and traps people not only in certain cycles but also with all kinds of trauma, and the kinds of victories that become their daily lives. I reckon it’s a good film to watch to stimulate discussion with first year social work students or nursing students. Especially given the rule harm reduction plays in the film – it is fairly ubiquitous in the background but, unless one already comes to the film with a certain level of knowledge about harm reduction, much of the point of it might be missed or misunderstood.