Hastily discussed and poorly treated in this post: 12 Books (The Extended Organism; Testo Junkie; The Practice of Everyday Life; Social Reproduction Theory; Policing Black Lives; The New Faces of Fascism; You Know You Want This; Kintu; Baho!; 100 Days; Sleepwalking Land; and White and Black); 3 Movies (Custody; The Endless; and Sicilian Ghost Story); and 5 Documentaries (Makala; Matangi/Maya/M.I.A; Leaving Neverland; Won’t You Be My Neighbor?; and Alt-Right). I apologize that these are especially rushed. Two large writing projects took up my writing time and I’m a month behind on these reviews and trying not to fall further behind!
1. The Extended Organism: The Physiology of Animal-Built Structures by J. Scott Turner.
As I have gotten into reading texts related to various sciences, I find myself in a strange limbo. On the one hand, a lot of the popular science books simplify things more than I like. On the other hand, more advanced science books very quickly lose me in the maths and the formulas (and they don’t have to be much more advanced to do that!). What I like best are texts that don’t dumb things down, where I can’t always follow absolutely everything, but where I can get most things (and, the more texts like that I read, the more the parts I did not understand become understandable as I progress—for me, I learn new things by reading things I don’t understand until I understand them… which means that the things I don’t understand usually need to be paired, to some extent, with things I do understand). Turner’s text hits the sweet spot for me. It has a lot of formulas and maths, but he very clearly explains all his terms, and shows his work every step of the way. So, if you are willing to engage in a bit of mental work, you don’t need to know much of anything about his thesis to then end up with a solid understanding of it.
And Turner’s thesis is a pretty fascinating one. He argues that the structures animals build are a living part of the living organisms themselves and that it is arbitrary, unhelpful, and ultimately wrong to suggest that organisms end at the boundary of their skin. Structures, such buildings or homes then operate as external organs that perform similar functions to the organs that exist within our skins (they are all “devices that modify and control the flows of energy and matter between an organism and its environment”). If you think this sounds like some new age yuppie shit, with a goodly dose of Pixar thrown in, you need to look at the evidence Turner presents to make this argument. It’s hella compelling (as far as I can tell).
I choose to read this book because, in many ways, I have come to reject standard post-Enlightenment, Eurocentric notions of what constitutes “life” and “living.” Through studying things like endosymbiosis, evolutionary biology, and the porousness of organisms and environments, I have also been asking a lot of questions about where a living thing starts and ends and how we decide that. I have come to the conclusion that life is like a fractal. You will always find distinct living things at the level you look—and I think it goes all the way up and all the way (i.e., if you zoom in a little, you will always find smaller living things that exist within that life form and treat that life form as a part of the environment, and, if you zoom out a little, you will also discover that larger environments, in which that living things is embedded, can be viewed as living). The question, then, becomes with how one understands human-made environments (like cities) or things (like houses and cars) and how they relate to notions of “life” and “living.” If a forest can be viewed as a living thing can a city also be viewed as such? If rocks and trees can be viewed as living things, can cars and human-made objects? I mean, I can quickly think of cities as being a lifeform (and, drawing from old animist and other traditions, can see that a city could have a certain spirit, just like individual lakes and forests have their own spirits [or deities or whatever], and I think we experience that when we talk about the vibe we get from different cities or other locations), but thinking about a car as something alive feels weird to me. However, this may be because of my upbringing and because I’m still drawing a divide between that which is made by humans and that which exists within “nature” (because, yes, humans are just as natural as any other part of nature and there is no a priori reason to see humans as constructing “artificial” environments while other ecosystem engineers, like beavers, construct “natural” environments). So, in light of these things, it’s intriguing to think about Turner’s thesis about animal-built structures existing as external (living) organs of other organisms.
2. Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era by Paul B. Preciado.
Trans scholarship is mostly foreign territory to me. More generally, my readings around queer sexuality have been fairly limited and probably overly influenced by Foucault and Butler (granted, I have read a number of queer theorists, but they are not always writing on the issue of sexuality). So, Paul B. Preciado’s Testo Junkie caught me eye and I was interested in seeing how he both extends and challenges the work of other theorists as he develops his own thesis.
Formally, I really like how he blurs genres and mixes personal reflections and autobiographical sections (what Maggie Nelson would call autotheory) with more sustained sections of theoretical reflection. Not only does this make for a more enjoyable read, it creates shortcuts between life and thought (which are only artificially separated anyway) and the creativity of the writing adds to the creativity of the thoughtful response of the reader.
In terms of content, Preciado basically develops Foucault’s notion of biopolitics and asks how it applies and how it must be altered based upon our present context, which Preciado defines as “the pharmacopornographic era”—an era quite different from the high modern context Foucault was interested in studying. The term “pharmacopornographic” refers to “the processes of a biomolecular (pharmaco) and semiotic-technical (pornographic) government of sexual subjectivity” that is concerned with the “invention of a subject and then its global reproduction.” In fact, Preciado argues that:
The real stake of capitalism today is the pharmacopornographic control of subjectivity, whose products are serotonin, techno-blood and blood products, testosterone, antacids, cortisone, techno-sperm, antibiotics, estradiol, techno-milk, alcohol and tobacco, morphine, insulin, cocaine, living human eggs, citrate of sildenafil (Viagra), and the entire material and virtual complex participating in the production of mental and psychosomatic states of excitation, relaxation, and discharge, as well as those of omnipotence and total control.
Therefore, as an end result of this, Preciado argues that:
We are gradually witnessing the miniaturization, internalization, and reflexive introversion … of the surveillance and control mechanisms of the disciplinary sexopolitical regime. These new soft technologies of micro-control adopt the form of the body they control and become part of it until they are inseparable and indistinguishable from it, ending up as techno-soma-subjectivities. The body no longer inhabits disciplinary spaces but is inhabited by them.
Anyway, this is all really good stuff and, once you adjust to Preciado’s language, you’re in for a good read. Recommended.
3. The Practice of Everyday Life by Michel de Certeau.
I found The Practice of Everyday Life to be a somewhat unusual text. Having come across references to it counter-imperial and so-called “post-colonial” literature, wherein Certeau’s talk about how day-to-day people “make do” within oppressive contexts is highlighted, I think I was expecting something with more of an anti-oppressive focus. Instead, Certeau does more for cultural theory what Eco did for hermeneutics—shifts the locus of meaning production from producers and products to consumers. This is the kind of thing we tend to take for granted when we think about the dynamics of meaning production now, but in 1984 (when this book first dropped) it was a pretty big deal to talk this way. That said, I did like how Certeau applied this lens to watching television. We tend to think of watching TV as a entirely passive thing and then we talk about how movies, shows, and ads influence and shape people but (especially in this area), we tend to neglect how people engage the content they view, how they reshape its meaning, and how they then also deploy it to their own ends. This was a highlight for me. Much of the rest of the text either fell flat (particularly when he was talking about different ways of mapping cities) or is already well covered in other post-Certeau theory I have read.
4. Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression edited by Tithi Bhattacharya.
Marxism can sound really exciting and rebellious and like maybe something you want to know more about … until you encounter 7 out of 8 Marxists and they start talking all in numbers, draw a bunch of whack graphs, and go on and on about pin factories. Truth is, a lot of Marxist theorists have made Marxism boring (and, to be honest, I think Bakunin was correct to see the roots of this in Marx himself—especially since Marx was so much more interested in talking dangerously than in acting dangerously). But every now and again you come across a Marxist text that makes you remember why you fell in love with Marxism in the first place, that helps you make sense of the world in a new way that feels so much more three-dimensional than your previous understanding, and that ignites a fire in you to both learn more and do more. Social Reproduction Theory did that to me. It’s Marxist but not dogmatic and it fills in significant gaps in Marx’s work (particular around the unpaid work women do in relation to the social reproduction that capitalism requires) and it is completely relevant to our context. Essay collections can be a mixed bag and, while some stood out more than others, I did not find myself skim reading any of the essays here. Recommended reading.
5. Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present by Robyn Maynard.
Robyn Maynard knows her stuff. There’s not a wasted sentence to be found here and the case she builds, she builds with overwhelming evidence. And what is her case? That the Canadian State, all of its various institutions (from schools and child protection services to the police and courts), at all stages of its history (including the present) is thoroughly and persistently anti-Black. This may come as a surprise to some folx (who live in bubbles? or in other countries? or who only have White neighbours? or who make more than six figures annually?) given the way in which Canada has tried to brand itself as a Nation devoted to multiculturalism, tolerance, and acceptance—especially over and against what is well known about our neighbours to the South. Shadd Cary’s words from 1852 (quoted by Maynard) still ring true: as a general rule, the White Canadian is an “anti-slavery Negro hater.” I think that pretty perfectly summarizes how Canada has always set itself apart from the USA. We have a much smaller (but still very real) history of slavery. But our history of anti-Blackness is just as long, just as structurally embedded in Canadian institutions, and just as devastating to Black lives. It’s just that Canada did a better job of (very deliberately) keeping free Blacks out of the territories we have occupied.
This book has been on my “to read” list since it dropped and I finally got down to reading it during Black History month. It is well worth reading any month of the year.
6. The New Faces of Fascism by Enzo Traverso.
Enzo Traverso is interested in carefully exploring the new faces of fascism in a careful and nuanced way that aims for utility and technical precision rather than simply engaging in polemics or name-calling that can sometimes be about branding, virtue signaling or side-taking. This is a decent enough objective although, I think, academics sometimes overplay its value or importance. Sure, there is a time and place for technical precision but there is also a time and place for deploying generalities, taking sides, and calling names. That said, Traverso’s precision leads him to speak not of “fascism” or “neofascism” but “postfascism.” As opposed to neofascism, which seeks to replicate or regenerate older forms of fascism, postfascism emerges out of classical fascism but takes a new form, deploys new tactics, and sometimes exhibits new ideological developments. The most notable way in which this occurs is the way in which postfascism has replaced the radical Left (especially the communist faction thereof) as movement arising from the masses that opposes “the system.” Also important is the way in which postfascism is not concerned with grand plans to transform the world but, instead, focuses on Government as the governance (i.e., management) of various populations in order to perpetuate the trajectory of the status quo. The ability of postfascism to incorporate some elements of White feminism and homonormativity, as well as its admiration for Israel as an ethno-State that rules through brute force also set it apart from classical understandings of fascism.
I also appreciated Traverso’s discussion of “identity politics” and the different ways in which it is deployed by the Right and Left. Traverso explains:
when the right talks about identity, its main concern is identification, that is to say, the policies of social control adopted in Europe in the late nineteenth century. This means controlling population movements and internal migration and registering foreigners, criminals, and subversives … The radical right would combine very modern biopolitical measures of identification and control with a very conservative identitarian discourse that aims at denouncing cosmopolitanism and globalisation as vectors of rootlessness.
Left-wing identity politics are something quite different: they are not a matter of exclusion, but a demand for recognition.
In developing our understanding of these differences, Traverso draws on Paul Riceour’s twofold understanding of identity—identity as sameness and identity as self. The Right is concerned with protecting a certain sameness, the Left wishes to acknowledge the sense of self experienced by diverse members of a community. I found this useful.
All in all, I thought Traverso’s text was useful although I feel he sometimes overplayed his case (in terms of distinctiveness and the creation of new labels). Of course, coining terms and whatnot is part of what academics do (and have to do in order to publish books and carve out their niche in the market) but whether we call what we are seeing “fascism,” “neofascism” (my preferred term), or “postfascism,” it is good to try and understand what it is, how it came to be, and how we can fight it, stop it, and prevent it from coming around again.
7. You Know You Want This: “Cat Person” and Other Stories by Kristen Roupenian.
In the world of literature and scholarship, there are a lot of really smart people, who say really smart things in really smart ways, but there are few people who produce what I consider to be works of genius that elevate themselves above the hoi polloi of academia. Kristen Roupenian became one of those people when she wrote “Cat Person.” It is the best short story I have ever read—and the fact that she can use a very well told, tightly woven story—a story with a plot, characters, and tone that are capable of standing alone as literature regardless of their relevance for our present moment—to engage in this kind of commentary on broader sociopolitical matters is amazing. So of course I bought this collection of her stories as soon as it dropped. I was surprised by the Lovecraftian elements. This collection fits into the feminist horror genre perhaps best expressed in film in Julia Ducournau’s Raw. But the stories maintain their own Roupenian elements. Having a debut like “Cat Person” is a hard act to follow but Roupenian does just fine. She is most definitely an author to follow.
8. Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi.
A sprawling thriller spanning centuries in the life of one family, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi tells the story of Uganda in the same way as Dostoyevsky tells the story of Russia. There’s tragedy and vengeance, forgiveness and redemption, psychological thrills, a spiritual domain that matters very much to the daily lives of the people in the story, more than one murder, and lists of names that are hard for English-speakers to track from section to section. Kintu is as solid as any of the classic European literature I have read but it is African through and through. A very good read.
9. Baho! by Roland Rugero.
Baho! is the first Burundian novel to be translated into English and it is quite delightful. The story deals with a mob that captures a young man who is accused of trying to sexually assault a young woman (although, in fact, he is a mute and was actually asking her where he could use the bathroom). However, while being a well told tale, Baho! is also a clever exposée of the ways in which men and patriarchal social responses that are purportedly engaged on behalf of women, are often just ways of masking male violence against women. The man who cries for the accused rapist to be hung is also the man checking out the ass of friend’s daughter as she walks by and wondering how he can tap that. And so on.
10. 100 Days by Juliane Okot Bitek.
Juliane Okot Bitek wrote these poems about the Rwandan genocide over a period of one hundred days. They have something of an improvisational art project feel to them (some fall flat, several feel rather repetitive) but many are very good. I actually sought out Bitek’s book because I realized that I had read poetry about genocide in Europe (the gulags, the Holocaust) but hadn’t even considered reading poetry written about what is one of the most well-known genocides to occur within my lifetime. It shows my bias around art and history. So I’m trying to re-align my priorities and perspectives. I’m glad I read Bitek’s poems.
11. Sleepwalking Land by Mia Couto.
So, Mia Couto’s full name is António Emílio Leite Couto and he is the son of Portuguese emigrants to, what was then, the Portuguese colony of Mozambique. He was 19 when Mozambique gained its independence in 1974 and he continued to live and write there and has been consistently praised for his proficiency with language (he writes in Portuguese) and for being one of the most important voices in African literature (and, in fact, the Zimbabwe International Book Fair selected Sleepwalking Land as one of the best twelve African books of the 20th-century). It’s interesting to observe this because when I heard the name “Mia Couto” and the title “African writer” and “a definitive voice from Africa” and so on, I don’t think of a white, Portuguese man. My question, then, is how much this has to do with my ignorance about some of the forms of hybridity that influence African-ness in so-called postcolonial Africa, and how much this name is deployed to deliberately mislead potential readers. I’m undecided.
Anyway, that said, Sleepwalking Land is a phenomenally good book. Parts of it feel as old as the land that passes by the protagonists, parts of it feel eternal, and parts of it feel pressingly relevant here and now. It is wonderfully told and a new favourite of mine.
12. White and Black: Political Cartoons from Palestine by Mohammed Sabaaneh.
It’s common to observe that a picture is worth a thousand words but, if we’ve learned anything in the age of social media, it’s that a lot of pictures are worth nothing at all (or, perhaps, it takes a thousand words to explain to us and convince us why these pictures are worthwhile). But then an artist like Mohammed Sabaaneh, an artist who has lived through many waves of settler colonial violence in Palestine and who has been imprisoned by the Israelis because of his art, and you start to remember the power of images. Very moving stuff.
1. Custody (2017) directed by Xavier Legrand.
Custody is a heart-wrenching exposure to domestic violence, the risks involved in fleeing, the power-plays abusers pull to keep those whom they target trapped, the lies abusers genuinely believe about themselves, and what it is like to be a young child who has to spend court-ordered time with the abusive parent, going back and forth between homes, trying to be safe, and trying to keep others safe. It reminded me of Zvyagintsev’s Loveless—and that’s very high praise. It was very difficult to watch … but I think it did a really good job of showing a difficult topic without being exploitative or voyeuristic. Recommended for those who can handle it.
2. The Endless (2017) directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead.
So, I actually came up with this really good theory about this movie and the big reveal and what the final interaction (including the final words!) between the protagonists mean, but I watched the movie back at the start of February and now all the details are a bit hazy. I didn’t realize until after the fact that I had watched another quite highly praised film by Benson and Moorhead (Spring), and I had similar feelings about both—close but not quite. But I think maybe closer this time around? So that’s a good sign. My theory about the film was really great though. Seriously. The world is missing out. Oh well.
3. Sicilian Ghost Story (2017) directed by Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza.
I confess to being disappointed with this one. It felt as though it had potential and it kept getting my hopes up as various plot threads or character developments began to emerge (and it didn’t hurt that Sicily looks like a pretty beautiful place), but they all ended up feeling two dimensional and I never felt as though I had bought-in to the story or the people involved. Actually, the more I think about this movie, the more I dislike it. Daniel Imburgia, perhaps you could have a talk with your people about this?
1. Makala (2017) directed by Emmanuel Gras.
Makala garnered a ton of praise last year and, yeah, it’s really good but, to me, it kind of felt like another vignette in Michael Glawogger’s Workingman’s Death. Which, you know, is actually pretty high praise. I really liked both films. There is a certain contingent of critics who really go for the cinema verité style when evaluating documentaries, and they like things really rough and raw and half-formed and genius in a flawed sort of way. But trying to create a sense of authenticity through that kind of framing actually feels even more artificial to me and so I tend to gravitate towards more finely polished pieces like this (not always … but mostly). Anyway, I’ve never felt so much horror about a person’s bike getting knocked over. Gah!
2. Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. (2018) directed by Steve Loveridge.
Other than digging some of M.I.A.’s songs and even music videos, I didn’t know much about her. Finding out that she was the daughter of one of the leaders of the Tamil Tigers, was a bit of a surprise to me, but it made for a pretty fascinating documentary. Generally, I’m not into biopics about musicians (Amy and The Punk Syndrome being notable exceptions), but I found this one did a great job of combining, politics (in relation to gender, imperialism, immigration, and race), with a personal account of a young musician coming of age and transforming into a major pop star. I dug it.
3. Leaving Neverland (2019) directed by Dan Reed.
To the surprise of nobody, it turns out that Michael Jackson was like having sex with kids (lots of kids) and he had well thought out structures, supports, and strategies in place to facilitate this. Hearing some of the evidence of this is not what makes Leaving Neverland such a powerful documentary. Rather, what makes this film exceptionally moving is the stunningly risky, courageous, and wise manner in which the two focal survivors, James Safechuck and Wade Robson, speak about their experiences. Survivors of sexual violence face extraordinary pressure to stay silent and, if they push back against this and choose to speak about their experience, they face an equally strong pressure to present a stereotypical, Hollywood film understanding of rape that generally involves the use of overwhelming physical force, the victim’s horror and disgust about what is happening, and the victim’s desire but inability to escape, from a person who is more monstrous than human. However, as the vast majority of rape survivors know, a lot of experiences of rape in the real world are a lot more complicated. Rapists tend to be friends, loved ones, and family members. Physical arousal can take place during rape, regardless of the feelings of the victim, and freezing or not fighting back (for whatever reason) can end up looking (to others) a lot like consent. Add a number of other large power, like those that exist between children and men who coerce, exploit, or seduce them, and a person can even end up feeling all kinds of shame, self-blame, and horror because, looking back on things, they remember times when they were young and they really looked forward to getting naked with the man who raped them. Mix any number of these real world factors together, and people on the outside looking in (especially men, especially white men, especially powerful white men—but also a lot of white women who align themselves with these men for the personal benefits this gives them) are going to tell you, “that’s not rape,” “you wanted it,” “stop trying to blame someone else for your choices,” “how dare you drag down a good man just because you did something you regret,” and so on. In this way, as Kate Manne points out in her (really very, very good) book, Down Girl, the whole stereotypical, Hollywood presentation of rape actually aids and abets rape culture because it allows real life rapists to get away with doing what they do, as victims and survivors are either silenced or discredited in Court, due to the disparity between their experiences and what rape so often actually is.
Hence, survivors face enormous pressure to leave things out or misrepresent certain things that take place when they were raped, because they so very badly want people to understand that, yes, what they experienced was horrible and, yes, what they experienced was rape. But James Safechuck and Wade Robson do not do this. They speak very honestly about the whole complex mix of feelings they felt when seduced and sexually assaulted (multiple times) by a very wealthy and powerful megastar whom they loved and idolized—and who they believed loved them and saw something very special in them. Unless you have experienced something like what they have experienced, it’s hard to truly comprehend how courageous they are being by speaking so honestly. And they spoke this way knowing their own words would be used against them, knowing they would face a major backlash, and knowing that their honestly would be used as a weapon to try and invalidate them. And they still chose to speak. These two men instantly became heroes of mine. They were treated far worse than anyone deserves to be treated and they responded to that experience by choosing to treat all of us better than we deserve to be treated.
But, here’s the thing about the backlash (including lawsuits from Michael Jackson’s estate). As I said before, I don’t think anyone is surprised to learn more about how Michael Jackson was a kiddie-fucker. And that means a lot of people close to Michael sheltered him, helped to silence victims, and made years of abuse possible. Michael Jackson is dead now and so there will be no more repercussions for him. But many of those who aided and abetted him are alive. I would have liked to documentary to name more of those names. I would like those people to not also get away with things.
4. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018) directed by Morgan Neville.
This documentary is, undoubtedly, a love letter to Fred Rogers. And there is much that was truly beautiful about Mr. Rogers and what he wanted to share with children in America. He acknowledged children—their wisdom, dignity, and inherent worth, along with the ways in which they enrich our communities—and because he did this, he loved children in ways that they experienced as safe and as meaningful. This kind of love contributes to the thriving and flourishing of life in all its wondrous, intra-connected diversity (in other words, it is exactly the opposite of what Michael Jackson called “love,” which was simply all about collecting and then devouring children in order to satisfy one’s own desires without any thought at all about the harm this would cause others). I really enjoyed this documentary. I felt grateful after watching it.
Buuuuut … well … I can’t help but also feel that there is a certain White, American, Christian nostalgia associated with Mr. Rogers. Focusing on him in all the adoring ways that Morgan Neville does—and downplaying his initial quite sustained homoantagonism (being very quick to point out that one gay man whom Rogers oppressed went on to view Rogers as the missing father figure in his life and so on) as well as glossing over some questionable elements about Rogers as a parent and how he dealt (or did not deal) with his own experiences of trauma and the impact (or lack thereof) this had on his family—makes me wonder if Rogers has become something of a mirror for the kind of sweet, gentle, caring vindication White, American, Christians wish to find for themselves when they reflect on themselves. I wonder if a nostalgia for Mr. Rogers is also (in part) a nostalgia for the time when White, Christian, Americans could wholeheartedly believe they were wholeheartedly good people (and, if that’s the case, how much does this documentary allow people to hold onto that belief?). But this is just a feeling, a suspicion, something poking at the back of my mind. I still enjoyed the documentary a great deal.
5. Alt-Right: Age of Rage (2018) directed by Adam Bhala Lough.
Meh. I fell asleep multiple times watching this. If you’ve followed any of the conversation about the alt-right, neo-fascism (or postfascism), White nationalism, antifacism (and its deep roots), as well as most of the videos that went viral from events that have taken place over the last few years, this documentary isn’t going to add much to what you already know. Unless it did that in the parts when I was sleeping. If you want to watch a truly great documentary for understanding our time, watching The Sorrow and the Pity by Marcel Ophuls.