Better late than never, right? Discussed in this post: 13 books (Mothers and Others; Neoliberal Legality; The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism; The Birth of Biopolitics; The Ku Klux Klan in Canada; Just Us; The Cunning of Recognition; White Magic; A History of My Brief Body; Embers; Parallel Stories; A Swim in the Pond in the Rain; and Before the Next Bomb Drops); 3 movies (Identifying Features; Riders of Justice; and Vitalina Varela); and 2 documentaries (Feels Good Man; and The Rise of Jordan Peterson).
1. Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy.
In Mothers and Others, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, an evolutionary anthropologist, explores the question as to why the evolutionary ancestors of homo sapiens sapiens were able to evolve in such a different direction than other primates. She argues that our hominin ancestors were uniquely cooperative and that this bend towards cooperation arose specifically in relation to childcare and, even more specifically, in relation to alloparental care. This is care for infants provided by individuals who are not the biological parents of the infants being cared for. Shared care for infants provides all kinds of significant benefits—two quick examples: allowing parents to engage in other life-sustaining and -strengthening activities, allowing infants and then children longer periods for development (including cognitive development)—and this then set our ancestors into a different self-reinforcing evolutionary feedback loop. It’s a convincing argument and one that fits, more generally, with other things I have been reading in the domain of evolutionary theory (and, specifically, evolutionary theories that include an exploration of how human culture[s] evolved). Over and over again, evolutionary science demonstrates that mutual aid, far more than domination based on strength or being an apex predator, is at the core of the success we have had as a species. “Survival of the fittest” is not so much about “the strongest survive” as it is about finding one’s best fit within a web of interconnecting relationships (including relationships across species and with environmental features) so that everyone can enjoy a mutual thriving.
2. Neoliberal Legality: Understanding the role of law in the neoliberal project edited by Honor Brabazon.
This is an exceptionally good book and provides one essential piece of the puzzle that is sometimes neglected in other overviews of contemporary neoliberalism. This is the way in which neoliberal power dynamics are vested in the rule of law. In fact, I would argue that neoliberalism exhibits the most all-encompassing rule of law that human societies have ever experienced. Neoliberalism, in other words, is not only a certain economic rationality made universal (in both the big picture and in every small picture as well), it is also and equally rooted in the logic of the rule of law pressed to its fullest manifestation. Questioning and resisting neoliberalism, then, requires not only raising a challenge to economic models and visions, it also means questioning the entire notion of the rule of law from the ground up. Much of this is illustrated in this collection of essays. I very highly recommend it.
3. The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism by Colin Crouch.
How, Colin Crouch asks, did neoliberalism survive the market crash and recession of 2007-2010? Surely that event, which shook the entire world and whose consequences still ripple through our lives today, should have caused the death of the neoliberalism that has been on the ascendent from the 1980s until the crash occurred. Well, Crouch argues, to understand “the strange non-death of neoliberalism,” it is necessary to understand the rise of neoliberalism, how it came to power, how it structured power, and how it continually strengthened its power. Crouch explores a lot of this by examining the rise of the firm, especially the transnational firm (which, as Brabazon’s collection of essays reminds us, is intimately linked to transnational courts of law that are sovereign over individual nation states)—another important piece in the puzzle for understanding the times we live in. Critical to the shift from liberalism to neoliberalism, Crouch and many others argue, is the shift from laissez-faire economics, which are premised upon the government getting out of the way so that markets can act “naturally” and without impediment, to governments becoming highly involved in creating the kind of environment where neoliberal competition, economization, and profiteering can occur. Government is not to intervene in competition, economization, and profiteering, but the supposed failure of liberalism that was coming to bear especially in the ‘70s, demonstrated a need for government to structure (and in many ways destroy) society, and especially the part of society referred to as “the social,” in a way that permitted neoliberalism to run rampant in all areas of life. So, when all of this goes boom in 2007-2010 what happens? Neoliberal wealth- and powermongers argue that the problem is actually that neoliberalism was not pursued vigourously enough. The problem was not too much neoliberalism, it was too little! And so austerity is imposed on those who are “too small to matter” in order to further enrich those who are “too big to fail.” Here, I’m reminded of the old story about when Rehoboam became the king of Israel. The people were crying out for the new king to alleviate the suffering they experienced under the reign of the old king. What does Rehoboam say? “My father laid on you a heavy yoke—I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips—I will scourge you with scorpions.”
4. The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France 1978-1979 by Michel Foucault.
In many ways, this series of lectures by Foucault, prompted much of the examination of neoliberalism that has followed. It’s a remarkable and somewhat out-of-character series of lectures, in that Foucault explores then-contemporary political and economic issues and presents a somewhat less thorough and well-formed argument than in other lectures (and the title is misleading; it seems to me that the 1977-1978 lectures series actually had more to say about the birth of biopolitics than this series). The critical point, for Foucault, are the ways in which neoliberalism doesn’t just structure society or pursue certain economic channels in order to produce certain economic outcomes, but the ways in which neoliberalism produces a certain universalizing rationality, or social imaginary, and, concomitantly, produces a certain kind of neoliberal subject/subjectivity. He also highlights subtle shifts—like the shift from exchange to competition that occurs in the move from liberalism to neoliberalism, which then has a ripple effect of moving from a focus on equality to normalizing inequality as competition always has winners and losers—in a prescient and almost prophetic manner. Important reading, although so many of his insights from this series are (not uncritically) incorporated and developed in the work of later scholars (see, especially, the work of Wendy Brown, but also many others) that you don’t necessarily have to go back and read this series to get all the riches it provides.
5. The Ku Klux Klan in Canada: A Century of Promoting Racism and Hate in the Peaceable Kingdom by Allan Bartley.
Canada has always been a White supremacist State. Given the ways in which Canada has deliberately and vigourously branded itself as not-like-the-racist-Americans, and as a universal “peacekeeper,” known for it’s acceptance of others and multiculturalism, this may come as a surprise a surprise to many Canadians (and others) who don’t actually know much about Canadian history. From the beginning, however, there were always quotas placed on non-White immigrants to Canada in order to ensure a White majority, sovereign Indigenous peoples have always (to this day) been the targets of genocide, and while Canada brings in many non-White migrant workers into various industries (hotels on the West Coast, tar sand projects in the prairies, farm workers in Ontario) all kinds of barriers are in place to ensure that these workers cannot actually move to Canada or bring their families to live here with them.
Given these things, it’s not altogether surprising to learn that the Ku Klux Klan had a very strong presence in Canadian-occupied territories in the early to mid twentieth century. I wanted to explore this history more because they city where I currently reside—as well as several of the smaller towns around these city—were central organizing points of the KKK and the Klan had a high number of members in this region, as well as a high number of high-ranking members. Reading Bartley’s overview was useful in understand the broader history of the KKK across Canadian-occupied territories. And while the KKK itself has faded as an organizing hub the people who were active members, and their ancestors and friends, did not go away. In many ways, they have continued into various different permutations—from the neo-Nazi resurgence in the ‘80s and ‘90s, to the rise of groups like PEGIDA, the Soldiers of Odin, Proud Boys, and other patriotic groups that are nostalgic for Canadian roots in British imperialism and traditional Protestant Christian values, the legacy of White supremacy lives on (and continues to overlap and recruit from within Men’s Rights groups as well as anti-Masker/anti-Vaxxer groups today).
Indeed, one of the important points that comes through in Bartley’s history is how little removed the goals and values of the KKK are from: (1) patriots, who are especially proud of Canadian history and origins; (2) Protestant Christians; and (3) those who favour a Law & Order agenda and are pro-policing. It seems that the KKK was simply more explicit about the racism woven into those other three elements, and also more willing to take militant action on the street. Disrupting, disarming, and destroying White supremacy, then, means attacking all three of those other elements as well.
6. Just Us: An American Conversation by Claudia Rankine.
In her follow-up to Citizen, Claudia Rankine presents a mixed-media book that is an intimate exploration of the ways in which everyday racism, big and small, bludgeons Black folx into a constant state of sorrow, rage, and despair. From constantly having White people step in front of her in line (because they don’t think a Black woman would be in line for first-class seats on the plane) to processing the complex web of emotions produced by well-meaning White friends who say more than they mean too when they try to empathize or question or understand American-style racism, Rankine gives a glimpse into much that White folx just wouldn’t see on their own.
7. The Cunning of Recognition: Indigenous Alterities and the Making of Australian Multiculturalism by Elizabeth A. Povinelli.
In a way that anticipates Glen Coulthard’s highly-acclaimed argument in Red Skins, White Masks, Elizabeth Povinelli explores how recognition of Indigeneity within the context of multiculturalism can often be deployed as a strategy that exonerates and upholds settler colonial sovereignty over stolen land (Povinelli looks at this in the context of Australian-occupied territories, whereas Coulthard examines Canadian-occupied territories). Povinelli does an especially good job of showing how legal definitions of what constitutes “genuine indigeneity” (including those enshrined in UNDRIP) are constructed as a catch-22 to Indigenous peoples—very much a “heads I win, tails you lose” situation. It’s a point of critical importance given the ways in which UNDRIP has been something some Indigenous peoples—and a whole lot more “White allies”—have latched onto this as a supposed way forward. Povinelli shows that it’s a trap that only moves us closer to the full erasure of Indigenous sovereignties—which, of course, is one definition of genocide.
8. White Magic by Elissa Washuta.
Elissa Washuta is a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe. She weaves a beautiful spell with this text. It combines reflections on de/colonization, trauma, Twin Peaks, abuse, beauty, self-soothing via illicit medications, Stevie Nicks, and witchcraft, into a wonderful and mesmerizing series of essays. I enjoyed it quite a lot and look forward to reading her earlier work, My Body is a Book of Rules.
9. A History of My Brief Body by Billy-Ray Belcourt.
Billy-Ray Belcourt is one of my favourite contemporary poets. A History of my Brief Body is not poetry, however, even if at times it is poetic. It’s actually a theory-laden autobiographical reflection. It’s smart and passionate and intimate and aims high but, in the end, it left me feeling just a little disappointed. I feel like Belcourt may still be developing as a prose writer. I’m curious to see where he goes next.
10. Embers: One Ojibwe’s Meditations by Richard Wagamese.
Embers is a book that should be read slowly. It contains a series of short meditations perhaps intended to be read at the start or end of the day when one has a quiet moment for reflection and consideration. There are many beautiful truths here and Wagamese is a talented writer. The simplicity of his sentences and paragraphs should not lead the reader to think that was is said so simply can be lived so easily. The art of living simply is, after all, an art and one that is especially difficult to cultivate in our context. I enjoyed working my way through this and am grateful to my friend Lyf who surprised me by sending this book my way. Thanks, Lyf!
11. Parallel Stories by Péter Nádas.
Parallel Stories is a difficult book to read. It meanders through time and space, hosts characters from multiple generations, relies on the reader to make the connections and discover the parallels it slowly uncovers, sometimes in the middle of a two hundred page long sex scene that the reader may be tempted to skim (and thereby miss one important connection that will not be mentioned again in the approximately 1200 pages of the book), or in one of many passages where Nádas writes about characters thinking about, touching, or otherwise dwelling up, their own dicks. Given these things, I’m really unsure about what to think of the book. It is, I think, a masterpiece that would actually reward careful study… but it’s a difficult masterpiece and one that I didn’t really enjoy reading. If you’re into Joyce, Fauklner, or Gass, perhaps this will be your jam. Otherwise, damn, it’s a long slog.
12. A Swim in the Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life by George Saunders.
George Saunders is rapidly becoming one of my favourite authors as I belatedly begin to explore the short-story genre. This book, however, is an example of how Saunders helps students study short stories written by Checkhov, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Gogol. It’s absolutely brilliant. A pleasure to read and anyone who reads it will become a better reader and writer of stories. It helps to demonstrate why Saunders is truly a master of his craft and of the technique related to his craft. With Saunders not a word is wasted or out of place. Every sentence must follow the sentence that came before. Every paragraph can only be situated where it is situated. This is no meandering stream of consciousness or work that relies on the author’s ability to communicate a certain affect (even as they indulge in various digressions—something I do all the time, in fact, I’m doing it now). Saunders works and works and works a piece until it is the most perfect piece it will be. In this book, he helps his students and readers understand how to do that themselves. Fantastic.
13. Before the Next Bomb Drops: Rising Up From Brooklyn to Palestine by Remi Kanazi.
Remi Kanazi is a Palestinian poet living in New York. He is angry at the colonization of his people and of their land, he is angry about genocide, he is angry that Israel commits war crimes—for example, using White Phosphorus to burn children and others to death—and he should be angry. He wants others to be angry, too. And we should be angry. He wants others to be so angry that they act, that they do something, that they examine the ways in which they are living death-soaked lives so that they can live differently. I know this feeling. I admire his passion. But the word is weak. Much weaker than White Phosphorus or geopolitical alliances structured to make the rich richer, regardless of who burns to death along the way.
1. Identifying Features (2020) directed by Fernanda Valadez.
I’m just not sure how I feel about the ending. I admit that it caught me by surprise and I’m trying to figure out if I feel disappointed because I felt strongly that the ending should have been different or, if the different ending I expected would have been an ending that far better suited the film. That said, this film is truly remarkable and will undoubtedly show up on my list of “best of the best” films when I do my annual wrap-up and review in December. It is a tale about Mexican migration, about able-bodied young men going in pursuit of work in the territories stolen by the United States, and about the real risks they face on that journey—but told from the perspective of mothers left behind. It’s a film about unknowns, about bureaucracy, about smallness in the midst of bigness, about lining up, about going from here to there to there only to be sent to there, about sorrow, and about the impossibility of even beginning to know where to start but starting anyway. And then continuing. Because that’s what people do. We continue. Until we don’t anymore. Very highly recommended.
2. Riders of Justice (2020) directed by Anders Thomas Jensen.
So, if you’ve been following my monthly reviews for any amount of time, you’ll know that action films and comedies aren’t movies I’m inclined to watch. Buuuut you’ll also know that I have a soft spot for Swedish cinema and the absurdist strand of humour that is a strong influence there (Roy Andersson, ftw!). Plus, I have a bit of a crush on Mads Mikkelsen, so I figured I would check out this genre-blurring piece which appears to be an action-comedy (and it is those things) but which is also a meditation on trauma, its confrontation with the stories we tell ourselves in order to discover meaning in life, grief and loss, anger and vengeance, chance and coincidence. Few films have such a well-developed and contextually-situated cast of characters—and Jensen is talented enough as a director to stay true to his characters as they find themselves in some… unusual circumstances. As a film, it is both unexpectedly thoughtful and unexpectedly entertaining. Good times.
3. Vitalina Varela (2019) directed by Pedro Costa.
The official end of the period of colonization, leading us into the so-called post-colonial world, came in 1974 when the Portuguese empire, then under the reign of the brutally ruthless Salazar, finally collapsed. But changing our terms of references or national flags and boundaries does not always change all that much else. And one of the things that have persisted are slums on the outskirts of Lisbon populated by refugees and immigrants from Cabo Verde. There are good reasons to view gentrification as the municipalization of neoliberal colonization. Capitalism, having suffused all the grand arteries of the world, now moves into capillary sized flows in search of markets and every last ounce of profit. But it is especially striking when the slums created in Europe are also populated by those impoverished by the European colonization of Africa.
The directorial gaze of Pedro Costa transforms Lisbon’s Fontainhas into something that feels very much like a Renaissance painting. If Rembrandt had made films, they would look like this. Which is an interesting point of comparison, because Rembrandt was painting at the same time that the Dutch were at the centre of the burgeoning Black African slave trade—in fact, Rembrandt himself painted portraits of a couple whose wealth derived from their slave-operated plantations in Brazil (the Soolmans sugar factory, colloquially referred to as “The Fires of Purgatory”). Be that as it may, Costa’s work is extraordinarily well-crafted—think something along the lines of Yorgos Lanthimos, Wes Anderson, and a very strong dose of Béla Tarr. Only those three directors are overwhelmingly White. In this film, every single character is Black.
1. Feels Good Man (2020) directed by Arthur Jones.
Matt Furie created the character of Pepe the Frog as a part of his underground comic, Boy’s Club. Much to his horror, Pepe was then completely taken over by the alt-Right, Incels, Men’s Rights Activists, and neo-Fascists. This documentary details the process by which that occurred, how it deeply affected Furie, and how eventually tried various (mostly belated but not entirely futile) efforts to fight back against the appropriation of his work. It’s a pretty fascinating documentary, not only because of these elements, but also because it closely examines one element of meme-culture and how memes become, well, memes. Entertaining and thought-provoking. A good combination of things.
2. The Rise of Jordan Peterson (2019) directed by Patricia Marcoccia.
In 2015, Patricia Marcoccia began a documentary about the then mostly unknown professor, Jordan Peterson, and his relationship with Kwakwaka’wakw carver, Charles Joseph. Then, of course, the controversy provoked by Peterson’s hostile transantagonism brought him to the forefront of a media circus and various movements interested in promoting gender essentialism, White supremacy, rape culture, and toxic masculinity. So Marcoccia’s focus shifted. Yet, despite her claims to providing a nuanced perspective on Peterson and the controversy, she actually serves lob after lob to Peterson and his fanbase, while minimizing and neglecting much that his harmful about Peterson and his work. In fact, despite her claims to present an unbaised look at Peterson, she says as much in the following quotation:
[I]f I just read that New York Times article ‘Custodian of the Patriarchy,’ and maybe, I don’t know, a Huffington Post article, and I saw a Vice piece, what would I think about Jordan Peterson? And life is busy, there’s a lot going on, I have other things to deal with, maybe I decide not to dig any deeper into it.[see here].
The end result is a pro-Peterson work of fanfiction. Don’t waste your time on it.