Book Shelves #42, 10.14.2012

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Book shelves series #42, forty-second Sunday of 2012

Couldn’t really get a good pic of the whole shelf, so in portions, starting with a spread of postmodernist favorites from years past. Julia Kristeva was a particular favorite of mine in grad school, but her Portable stands up well outside of, jeez, I dunno, theory and deconstruction and all that jazz; there are plenty of memoirish essays, including a wonderful piece on Paris ’68 and Tel Quel &c. Sam Kimball‘s book The Infanticidal Logic of Evolution and Culture still maintains an important place in the way I approach analyzing any kind of storytelling. Love the cover of this first American edition of Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, which I bought for a dollar years ago at a Friends of the Library sale:

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I may or may not have obtained the The Viking Portable Nietzsche through nefarious means in my sixteenth year. In any case, it’s not really the best intro (I’m partial to The Gay Science), but it’s not bad. The Plato I’ve had forever. I never finished Bloom’s The Western Canon, although I’ve returned to it many times in the past five or six years, as I’ve opened up more to his ideas. I wrote about many of the books on this shelf, including a few by Simon Critchley.

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The book I’d most recommend on this section of the shelf—indeed, the entire shelf—is Freud’s The Future of an Illusion:

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The end of the shelf moves into more pop territory, including two good ones by AV Club head writer Nathan Rabin. You might also note Reality Hunger, a book that I am increasingly afraid to go back to, fearing that I probably agree more with Shields’s thesis, even if I didn’t particularly like his synthesis.

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Adam Thirlwell’s The Delighted States is an overlooked gem that should have gotten more attention than Shields’s “manifesto.” He shares a bit of Georges Perec (whose writing helped spark this project of mine):

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James Wood’s How Fiction Works got my goat: 

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From my review:

Like most people who love to read, both academically and for pleasure, I like a good argument, and Wood’s aesthetic criticism is a marvelous platform for my ire, especially in a world that increasingly seems to not care about reading fiction. Wood is a gifted writer, even if his masterful skill at sublimating his personal opinion into a front of absolute authority is maddening. There’s actually probably more in his book that I agree with than not, but it’s those major sticking points on literary approaches that stick in my craw. It’s also those major sticking points that make the book an interesting read. I’d like to think that I’m not interested in merely having my opinions re-confirmed.

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Despair/Food (Books Acquired 6.08.2012)

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 Dead Man Working is the latest from Carl Cederström (whose discussions with Simon Critchley became How to Stop Living and Start Worrying) and Peter Fleming. The book explores the existential despair of workers in our post-capitalist age. (It’s funnier than that description might suggest). Publisher Zer0’s blurb:

Capitalism has become strange. Ironically, while the ‘age of work’ seems to have come to an end, working has assumed a total presence – a ‘worker’s society’ in the worst sense of the term – where everyone finds themselves obsessed with it. So what does the worker tell us today? ‘I feel drained, empty – dead'; This book tells the story of the dead man working. It follows this figure through the daily tedium of the office, to the humiliating mandatory team building exercise, to awkward encounters with the funky boss who pretends to hate capitalism and tells you to be authentic. In this society, the experience of work is not of dying…but neither of living. It is one of a living death. And yet, the dead man working is nevertheless compelled to wear the exterior signs of life, to throw a pretty smile, feign enthusiasm and make a half-baked joke. When the corporation has colonized life itself, even our dreams, the question of escape becomes ever more pressing, ever more desperate.

Full review on deck.

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Yes, Chef is Marcus Samuelsson’s memoir. If that name sounds familiar, you might recognize his face:

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Publisher Random House’s blurb:

Marcus Samuelsson was only three years old when he, his mother, and his sister—all battling tuberculosis—walked seventy-five miles to a hospital in the Ethiopian capital city of Addis Adaba. Tragically, his mother succumbed to the disease shortly after she arrived, but Marcus and his sister recovered, and one year later they were welcomed into a loving middle-class white family in Göteborg, Sweden. It was there that Marcus’s new grandmother, Helga, sparked in him a lifelong passion for food and cooking with her pan-fried herring, her freshly baked bread, and her signature roast chicken. From a very early age, there was little question what Marcus was going to be when he grew up.

Yes, Chef chronicles Marcus Samuelsson’s remarkable journey from Helga’s humble kitchen to some of the most demanding and cutthroat restaurants in Switzerland and France, from his grueling stints on cruise ships to his arrival in New York City, where his outsize talent and ambition finally come together at Aquavit, earning him a coveted New York Times three-star rating at the age of twenty-four. But Samuelsson’s career of  “chasing flavors,” as he calls it, had only just begun—in the intervening years, there have been White House state dinners, career crises, reality show triumphs and, most important, the opening of the beloved Red Rooster in Harlem. At Red Rooster, Samuelsson has fufilled his dream of creating a truly diverse, multiracial dining room—a place where presidents and prime ministers rub elbows with jazz musicians, aspiring artists, bus drivers, and nurses. It is a place where an orphan from Ethiopia, raised in Sweden, living in America, can feel at home.

With disarming honesty and intimacy, Samuelsson also opens up about his failures—the price of ambition, in human terms—and recounts his emotional journey, as a grown man, to meet the father he never knew. Yes, Chef is a tale of personal discovery, unshakable determination, and the passionate, playful pursuit of flavors—one man’s struggle to find a place for himself in the kitchen, and in the world.

How to Stop Living and Start Worrying — Simon Critchley

Simon Critchley’s latest book How to Stop Living and Start Worrying picks up where his last work, The Book of Dead Philosophers, left off. Both works explore what Critchley contends to be the signal problem of all philosophy; namely, how one might live a meaningful life against the backdrop of inevitable death. In Dead Philosophers, Critchley plumbed this question by surveying the deaths of dozens of famous philosophers, ultimately affirming a positive reality in death (both our own deaths and the deaths of others), and arguing that philosophies (and religions) that advocate the idea of a spiritual afterlife ultimately negatively disrupt human existence and lead to inauthentic lives. How to Stop Living reiterates these themes in a new form, essentially arguing that in asking “how to live,” we must also ask “how to die” — and also how to love and how to laugh. How to Stop Living takes form as a series of conversations between Critchley and Carl Cederström, an Associate Professor at the Institute of Economic Research at Lund University in Sweden. There’s a warm rapport between the pair, and although Critchley does most of the talking, there’s a genuine dialog in play, not merely a flat interview. The book unfolds over six chapters. The first, “Life,” is a discussion of, well, Critchley’s life, both personal and academic. I originally thought I’d be doing a lot of skimming here, but it’s actually kind of fascinating; more importantly, though, it establishes Critchley’s contention that a philosopher’s work cannot be divorced from his biography. To philosophize is to live. This idea is reiterated succinctly at the beginning of the second chapter, “Philosophy,” when Critchley states—

The first thing to say is that philosophy is not a solely professional or academic activity for me. Philosophy is not a thing, it’s not an entity; it’s an activity. To put it tautologically: philosophy is the activity of philosophizing, an activity which is conducted by finite, thinking creatures like us. Now, my general view of philosophy is that this activity must for part of the life of a culture. Philosophy is the living activity of critical reflection in a specific context; it always has a radically local character.

What follows in “Philosophy” is a somewhat discursive overview of the philosophers who will pop up again and again in the book: Heidegger, Husserl, Kant, Nietzsche, and, of course, Derrida. While I’m laundry listing, I might as well add Freud, Lacan, Beckett, and Hegel as key figures in How to Stop Living. In the third chapter, “Death,” Critchley discusses how many of these philosophers frame a subject’s individual relationship to his or her personal death. In a particularly enlightening passage, Critchley explains Heidegger’s “possibility of impossibility,” the idea that to be authentic, to lead an authentic life, one must internalize and master the finitude of a personal death. The chapter continues, working through other conceptions of death, including those of Freud, Beckett, and Derrida. Perhaps because of its dialogic structure, How to Stop Living often feels like a rap session, a big brainstorm, a work in process, and nowhere is this more evident in a chapter called “Love,” where Critchley moves from Hannah Arendt to The Song of Solomon to Lacan and Freud to a story about his marriage proposal. It’s all a bit messy, a bit watery, a bit undefined, and therefore difficult to summarize, so I’ll let Critchley dish on love in his own words—

Love is the attempt to break the logic of masochism that defines the subject, and to behave in a different way. That’s something that has to be wound up everyday . . . and it’s something with no end; and it requires a constant experience of faith. That’s the only sense I can make of love.

The next section, “Humour,” is better defined—and one of the highlights of the book. Critchley discusses jokes against a backdrop of psychoanalysis and anthropology, ultimately arguing that humor has the power to disrupt an individual’s relation to time or place, and thus reconstitute that relation in some meaningful way. Critchley’s book itself is indeed a meta-joke, a play against the sophistry of New Age self-help books. Indeed, the very name of the book is an inversion of Dale Carnegie’s 1948 “classic” of the genre, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. If you find the cover of Critchley’s book as off-putting and cheesy as I do, just remind yourself that it’s a parody of Carnegie’s cover. And yet Critchley’s sense of humor is not ultimately black irony, but rather a humor of affirmation of — and confrontation of — the absurdity of contemporary life. It’s not irony but authenticity he wants. “Authenticity” is thus the final chapter of this relatively short book, and here Critchley invites his friend (and partner in the International Necronautical Society) novelist Tom McCarthy to participate in the conversation. The chapter is lively, almost frenetic, and frankly all over the place, as Critchley and McCarthy rocket from subject to subject — Finnegans Wake, the Challenger explosion, Terrence Malick, J.G. Ballard, Levinas, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, McCarthy’s first novel Remainder — each reference seems to slip into the next, reined in occasionally by Cederström, who steers the conversation back to its center (leave it to deconstructionists to get off center). Good stuff.

How to Stop Living and Start Worrying, despite its tongue in cheek title and cover, and its discursive flow, is serious (if playful) about philosophy. Those interested in the thinkers and topics I’ve mentioned in this review may be interested, but it’s not necessary for one to have a working knowledge of Continental philosophy to enjoy Critchley’s latest. Recommended.

How to Stop Living and Start Worrying is available now from Polity Books.

Simon Critchley on Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line

In his new book, How to Stop Living and Start Worrying, Simon Critchley talks about death in Terrence Malick’s film The Thin Red Line (you can read Critchley’s earlier essay “Calm — On Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line” here)—

So, the hero of The Thin Red Line is this character Witt. And we meet him for the first time on the beach meditating about his mother’s death, imagining that he could meet death with the same calm that his mother seemed to meet it. We then get this romantic flashback: it’s somewhere in the Midwest; he’s touching his mother’s hand; then the hand is pulled away and she’s gone. That’s the fantasy of the authentic death. And Witt, according to Malick, fulfills the fantasy: approaching death with calm — this is Epicurus, Lucretius, Spinoza. Interestingly, when I was looking at the sources — he’s very faithful to Jim Jones’s novel The Thin Red Line — he inserts the word ‘calm’ into the passage, it’ s not there in the novel. It might or might not be an allusion to Heidegger, where Heidegger, where Heidegger talks about anxiety as an anxiety towards death as an experience of calm, or peace: the German is Ruhe. This is a Romantic ideas of death. For Heidegger, if human beings are authentic they’re heading towards death; if they’re inauthentic they experience demise, which means that we just pass out of existence. But only animals and plants perish, and that just seems to be ridiculous. Human beings perish all the time, can perish, and there are examples like in Kafka’s Trial where one dies like a dog. Human beings die in all sorts of ways, in a permanent vegetative state or whatever.

“Death in the Comic Tradition” — Tom McCarthy on Heroism and Authenticity

A passage from Simon Critchley’s new collection of interviews and meditations, How to Stop Living and Start Worrying in which author Tom McCarthy (Critchley’s partner in the International Necronautical Society) talks about the question of an authentic, heroic self—

. . . in the heroic tradition in literature, which pits the self against death in a way that produces authenticity, you find a hero that runs into death like a fly slamming into an electric field, and which goes out in a tremendous spark of authentic apotheosis. There’s a lot about that, aesthetically, which is very seductive. However, we at the INS strongly reject that. Instead, we feel more seduced by the comic tradition in which the fly can’t even reach the electric field. It keeps tripping over its legs, or becomes distracted by something — dog shit, for example. So death in the comic tradition is not that of authentic self-mastery, but rather of a slippage; it’s about the inability to be oneself, and to become what one wants to be. And we think that that kind of tradition or logic is much more rich and fruitful.

“Declaration on the Notion of ‘The Future'” — The International Necronautical Society

At The Believer, you can read the entirety of “Declaration on the Notion of ‘The Future’by The International Necronautical Society (aka Simon Critchley and Tom McCarthy (although we’re pretty sure that the essay’s authorization code TMcC010910 indicates that McCarthy is its author)). Playful and provocative stuff. A sample–

5. The INS rejects the Enlightenment’s version of time: of time as progress, a line growing stronger and clearer as it runs from past to future. This version is tied into a narrative of transcendence: in the Hegelian system, of Aufhebung, in which thought and matter ascend to the realm of spirit as the projects of philosophy and art perfect themselves. Against this totalizing (we would say, totalitarian) idealist vision, we pit counter-Hegelians like Georges Bataille, who inverts this upward movement, miring spirit in the trough of base materialism. Or Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, who, hearing the moronic poet Russel claim that “art has to reveal to us ideas, formless spiritual essences,” pictures Platonists crawling through Blake’s buttocks to eternity, and silently retorts: “Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past.”

6. To phrase it in more directly political terms: the INS rejects the idea of the future, which is always the ultimate trump card of dominant socioeconomic narratives of progress. As our Chief Philosopher Simon Critchley has recently argued, the neoliberal versions of capitalism and democracy present themselves as an inevitability, a destiny to whom the future belongs. We resist this ideology of the future, in the name of the sheer radical potentiality of the past, and of the way the past can shape the creative impulses and imaginative landscape of the present. The future of thinking is its past, a thinking which turns its back on the future.

 

Jeremy Bentham’s “Auto-Icon”

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From Simon Critchley’s The Book of Dead Philosophers:

In a text called Auto-Icon: or, Farther uses of the dead to the living, Bentham gave careful instructions for the treatment of his corpse and its presentation after his demise. If an icon is an object of devotion employed in religious ritual, then Bentham’s “Auto-Icon” was conceived in the spirit of irreligious jocularity. The “Auto-Icon” is a godless human being preserved in their own image for the small benefit of posterity. [. . .] As such, Bentham’s body is a posthumous protest against the religious taboos surrounding the dead [. . .] Bentham’s body was dissected and his skeleton picked clean and stuffed with straw. [. . .] Sadly, the mummification process went badly wrong and a wax head was used as a replacement. The original, rotting and blackened head used to be kept on the floor of the wooden box between Bentham’s feet . However, the head became a frequent target for student pranks, being used on one occasion for football practice in the front quadrangle.

The Book of Dead Philosophers — Simon Critchley

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A cursory glance at Simon Critchley’s skinny new work, The Book of Dead Philosophers, might lead one to misjudge the book as an ephemeral, superfluous, and even downright jokey sort of “Philosophy for Dummies.” That would be a mistake. While The Book of Dead Philosophers does aim for a broad, popular appeal, Critchley’s wily cataloging of the deaths of nearly 200 philosophers is hardly insubstantial reading. Working from Cicero’s maxim that “To philosophize is to learn how to die,” Critchley sets out to contextualize these philosophers’ writings on death against the very deaths of those philosophers. Ranging from the sophists of ancient Greece to the Classical Buddhists of China to post-modern gadflies like Foucault and Derrida, Critchley’s writing evokes both humor and pathos, and works in some ways as an overview of the history of philosophy without ever becoming didactic or overreaching its central goal.

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The Death of Socrates - Jacques-Louis David

While Critchely’s main purpose in Dead Philosophers seems to be to entertain and perhaps enlighten, he doesn’t shy from injecting his own attitude about his subject. In his introduction he addresses philosophies that emphasize an afterlife, arguing “that they cultivate the belief that death is an illusion to be overcome with the right spiritual preparations. However, it is not an illusion, it is a reality that has to be accepted. I would go further and argue that it is in relation to the reality of death that one’s existence should be structured.” Later, Critchley condemns the metaphysical, Platonist tradition further, and, at the same time, provides a greater rationale for his book: “I hope to show the material quality of the many lives and deaths that we will review disrupts the move to something like “Spirit” and places a certain way of doing philosophy in question. To that extent, there is something intensely arrogant, even hubristic, about a philosopher’s disregard for the lives and deaths of other philosophers.” Critchley’s materialist philosophy leads to an occasionally snarky–and quite humorous–tone when writing about the likes of Anslem, Thomas Aquinas, or even Heidegger and Schopenhauer. His sympathies are more earnestly apparent when he addresses the death of someone whose outlook he shares. Critchley on Bertrand Russell: “Any conception of the immortality of the soul is therefore both iniquitous, because it is untrue, and destructive of the possibility of happiness, which requires that we accept our finitude.”

Derrida Queries DeMan -- Mark Tansey

Derrida Queries DeMan -- Mark Tansey

Arranged both chronologically and geographically into short sections ranging from a few sentences to a few pages, Dead Philosophers encourages jumpy, discontinuous, and episodic readings. Still, despite his caveat that he is presenting a “messy and plural ragbag of lives and deaths that cannot simply be ordered into a coherent conceptual schema,” Critchley nonetheless manages to create nuance, layer, and perhaps even a touch of narrative to this work. In one of the final entries of the book, a touching tribute to Jacques Derrida (at three pages, one of the longest in the book–twice as long as the section on Plato), Critchley writes, “the dead live on, they live on within us in a way that disturbs any self-satisfaction, but which troubles us and invites on us to reflect on them further. We might say that wherever a philosopher is read, he or she is not dead. If you want to communicate with the dead, then read a book.” Lovely.

The American publication of The Book of Dead Philosophers is available February 10th, 2009 from Vintage Books.

Many readers will may also be interested in Simon Critchley’s essay on Barack Obama and metaphysical philosophy, “The American Void,” published in last November’s issue of Harper’s Magazine, or the post-victory essay, “What’s Left After Obama?” published last November in Adbusters.