24 May 2019

Eileen, by Otessa Moshfegh

This book first came to my attention because David Sedaris recommended it. Then there was the fanfare over her following novel, The Year of Rest and Relaxation, which made me even more curious. But what finally got me to read it turned out to be Moshfegh's appearance on the New Yorker fiction podcast, where she reads an incredible short story by Sheila Heti and discusses it. Something about the way way she read it, the smart observations she had in the conversation afterwards, it gave me the final push I needed. Having finished the novel, I see why she picked that story -- the style is very similar to her own (I think she says as much on the show). Both are characterized by this unsettling, detached affect, and a fascination with the grotesque, especially of bodies.

Eileen is a dark, twisted novel about a lonely, spiteful, and fairly repulsive woman. The plot flirts with cliché -- the abusive father, the disturbing sexual fantasies, the fascination with a charismatic other woman -- but somehow feels fresh and surprising at every turn. The retrospective narrative structure curiously seems to serve primarily to undo any potential suspense or sense of thrilling danger. The prose is crisp, deadpan, astonishing.

And yet, while I admired the book, I never really got into it. I finished it two weeks ago and I barely remember what happened. Maybe because I was caught up in other things at the time, or maybe because the plot never quite hooked me. But I'm definitely curious to read more of her work.

31 December 2018

Best Of 2018

My 10 favorite books that I read in 2018:

Electric Arches, Eve Ewing
The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks, Gwendolyn Brooks
Chasing the King of Hearts, Hanna Krall, translated by Philip Boehm
Ghachar Ghochar, Vivek Shanbhag, translated by Srinath Perur
The Undertaking of Lily Chen, by Danica Novgorodoff
The Friend, Sigrid Nunez
Slave Old Man, Patrick Chamoiseau, translated by Linda Coverdale
The Invented Part, Rodrigo Fresan, translated by Will Vanderhyden
Fever Dream, Samantha Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell
I am the Brother of XX, Fleur Jaeggy, translated by Gini Alhadeff

09 August 2018


My partner wants to show me something. It's late, we're on the couch, cozy. He loads up the game, and we're looking at aerial footage of some kind of village, black and white. An SUV pulls up, little figures emerge, swarm the screen. A voice tells him to fire (but not to damage the church), and the room fills with the thick thud of high caliber ammunition (where are we again? Russia?). "Look!" he says. "Do you see how the bodies go flying?"

This is old news, a well-worn debate, maybe not that interesting, even if the resolution is higher. Although maybe it is significant that this newest iteration "is a lot more violent," as he tells me.


On the radio they are discussing Charlottesville, one year later. A caller insists that Antifa are the ones responsible for the violence; one of the commentators is "disgusted", says that the white supremacists show up with their fists taped up, ready to fight, kicking and punching their way down the street, and Heather Heyer was not an isolated incident, and she was not just harmed, she was killed. I think again of the various debates I saw on facebook at the time about whether or not it is ok to punch a Nazi, and I think about every time I have taught Kant, and how Nazis are somehow too literal, but also strangely unspecific.


I wonder if this is the newest version of the Nazi punching debate, but I actually haven't seen anyone debating it, just a lot of delighted laughter. Humor is community, and humor is a coping mechanism, and it is also social critique and enforcement mechanism. When is violence funny?


We know it is hypocritical to revere Martin Luther King Jr. and advocate violence: this too, is old news. Or maybe the reverence provides cover; non-violence as the impossible meal for the anointed, knuckle sandwiches for the rest of us. And maybe his philosophy of non-violence is more nuanced than radical -- we are told he owned a gun. When I teach "Letter from Birmingham Jail," I always pause over the veiled threat in this paragraph:

I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the "do nothingism" of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle. If this philosophy had not emerged, by now many streets of the South would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood. And I am further convinced that if our white brothers dismiss as "rabble rousers" and "outside agitators" those of us who employ nonviolent direct action, and if they refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies--a development that would inevitably lead to a frightening racial nightmare.

(It's a freshman comp class. How did it get so heavy all of a sudden? Arguments are serious business, my friends.)


Violence: a Syllabus. Wouldn't it be wonderful to spend a semester thinking about this with a bunch of smart students? We could read Benjamin and Arendt and Fanon and everyone would have a research project on some specific topic and they would curate the readings for a given week. And then we'd all have the space to think about it a little more.

07 August 2018

all about love, by bell hooks

This is a challenging book for me, precisely because it does not seem challenging. It is written in extremely straightforward language, draws freely on personal experience as evidence, and makes extremely broad and sweeping claims about how the world works. All of this makes it feel very un-theoretical (even the last one, oddly enough) and un-rigorous. And yet - what is theory, really? What (or who) is it for? What is it meant to do?

Awhile back I watched a documentary called The Feminist on Cellblock Y, about an educational program at Soledad Prison that had the inmates reading feminist literature. I teach at a local prison myself, and I cover some stuff related to feminism and masculinity. My approach is to avoid any jargon, and use extremely straightforward, concrete examples and scenarios (my main text is the NYTimes article, "How to Raise a Feminist Son"). So I was impressed, in the documentary, to hear the guys bandying about terms like "patriarchy" and "toxic masculinity," and cite bell hooks. Maybe these things weren't as inaccessible as I had feared, I thought. And that was in the back on my mind, too, as I read this (though I was reading it in preparation for teaching college freshmen) -- how would the guys at the prison respond to it?

So of course, the straightforward language is a big component of what makes it so immensely teachable. As are the many moments where the text is openly, frankly personal. But those personal moments aren't just there to make the text relatable, or approachable -- they're an integral part of the argument. As it happens, I'm also working my way through Sara Ahmed's Living a Feminist Life at the moment, and she discusses this issue in the Intro:

This book is personal. The personal is theoretical. Theory itself is often assumed to be abstract: something is more theoretical the more abstract it is, the more it is abstracted from everyday life. To abstract is to drag away, detach, pull away, or divert. We might then have to drag theory back, to bring theory back to life. (10)

hooks is writing about love, and how difficult it is to talk about the desire for love. The point is neatly illustrated by how frankly shocking it seems when she says that she yearns for love, how pathetic, how embarassingly vulnerable. She confronts this head on:

whenever a single woman over forty brings up the topic of love, again and again the assumption, rooted in sexist thinking, is that she is "desperate" for a man. No one thinks she is simply passionately intellectually interested in the subject matter. No one thinks she is rigorously engaged in a philosophical undertaking wherein she is endeavoring to understand the metaphysical meaning of love in everyday life. No, she is just seen as on the road to "fatal attraction." (xx)

 The examples from her life - of failed relationships, of the kind of relationship she had with her family, are a core part of the argument (as part of her project of offering a more circumscribed definition, for instance, she argues that many families have relationships of care, but not love).

The sweeping claims are sometimes more persuasive ("There can be no love without justice" (19)) and sometimes less ("Truly, there would be no unemployment problem in our nation if our taxes subsidized schools where everyone could learn to love." (162)) -- but they are certainly generative, in the sense of opening up a conversation. Yes, the book is essentially a polemic, but you also don't _have_ to agree with all of it. If instead we see theory as a springboard, a tool that invites you to think, and think better, by proposing some ideas and questions to chew on -- this book certainly does that.

What is ultimately most alienating in it, for me, is the way it both explicitly references, and often draws on a language that stems from, self-help literature. But this is also where the vast majority of people engage these kinds of ideas! This is the conversation she's joining, and if she weren't including those kinds of texts, she wouldn't actually be participating in the dialogue. And while I do think that academia is often a conversation among a small number of people, and that that's ok! I think it's also important to have bigger conversations, and to recognize that they will be different (without being elitist pricks about it, or assuming that they'll be oversimplified). So while I found myself impatient with this book, or frustrated that it seemed to hover at a basic level, I also considered that it actually made me work harder, think harder, to build the connections and think through the intricacies. The discussions of forgiveness are probably the hardest, because at moments it seems like a blanket policy of forgiving all wrongs via compassion -- and that seems both very difficult (a la the radicalism of non-violence or turning the other cheek) and in some ways simplistic (but isn't that naively idealistic? Easier said than done?).

Actually, one of the most interesting things about the book is that it occasionally seems noticeably dated. It was published in 2001, and it shows. It's interesting to consider how cultural shifts, especially in relation to LGBTQ communities and the #MeToo movement, have shifted some of these terms and ideas (the references to Monica Lewinsky, for instance, seem surprisingly sexist). But others -- such as the discussion of a case where a white homeowner shot a young Asian man who came to his house by mistake, looking for a party -- remain sadly current (and thus seem prescient). 

It'll be interesting to see how my freshmen respond to it...

25 July 2018

Sorry to Bother You

I just watched Sorry to Bother You, and it's wonderful -- a brilliant, brooding, quasi-dystopia that mirrors our present all too closely. Namwali Serpell has a great piece (though with lots of spoilers - I'll try to have less, but you should probably watch it before reading this) on the film and the way its satire is grounded in literalism, but not only. The terrifying thing about the movie is that as you're watching it, you realize that much of what seems absurd is really quite plausible. Most obviously, the vaunted realm of the "power callers", their luxurious conditions and inflated salaries, as compared to the drudgery and poverty of the regular telemarketers, is fact, not fiction.

For Briahna Gray, writing for The Intercept, the crucial scene of the movie is the worker's strike that happens roughly halfway through. It is indeed a remarkable scene (I can't think of the last time a movie showed a labor strike either), and part of what's powerful about it is that it isn't a solution - it's one step in a broader struggle. And it quickly gets swept aside, as we instead follow the adventures of our protagonist, Cassius. It should be noted that it isn't obvious that Cassius will join the strike - at that point, he's already in a position to advance at work, he's starting to do better and earn money, and he is obviously hesitant to put that at risk. Although he sees the importance of the cause, his participation seems just as much based on the fact that his girlfriend, and everyone else in his social scene, are doing it too. When he's brought into the office after the strike, he thinks he'll be fired and is ready to go, but instead - plot twist! He gets a promotion, and accepts it, because after all, he won't be harming his friends' cause, he just...won't be helping it. Or so he can tell himself. Part of the cleverness of the film is that it doesn't vilify him for this choice. We disapprove, maybe, but we also understand, and can relate. Cassius is a good guy. When he learns what he'll be selling as a power caller, it gives him serious pause, but we see the seductive sway of capitalism work its charm -- not just the money he'll earn, and the comfortable lifestyle it will afford, but also (maybe even more importantly!) the feeling of being good at something, of making something happen. We cringe when he crosses the picket line, but we don't really expect him to change his mind, especially after his girlfriend's dumping him fails to sway him.

Of course, he eventually does change his mind -- but it takes some truly bizarre (or maybe not, scarier to think) developments to make that happen - not just a horrific reveal, but also direct personal risk. This is where the movie gets interesting, but also a lot hazier, even as time starts moving much more quickly, brilliantly capturing the dizzying pace of our media-cycle-dictated world. Once the conspiracy is revealed, can anything be done to stop it? The movie is fuzzy on this point. Going to the news with hard evidence does something, kind of, but not really. Ultimately, we are returned to Step One: the strike. Just gotta keep at it. Will it work? Unclear. The movie has to get back to its own loose ends, and acknowledge that maybe it's too late for Cassius, but maybe it's not, and maybe there's a whole other, more anarchic possibility if a strike won't work...but the movie declines to speculate further, and calls it a day there.

Here's the thing though - is there really a plan here? Yes, the movie does essentially argue that the strike is the only viable way forward (and gives Squeeze, the unionizing hero, a brief speech to hammer the point in). But it also shows us just how hard that is, and how even a likable, conscientious guy like Cassius can be turned away from the movement. What I like about Sorry to Bother You is that it's too smart to tell a simplistic, redemptive story about the power of organized labor to save the day, even as it matter-of-factly acknowledges that it's the best chance we have. It has been argued that movies are inadequate to capture the real, grinding, long durée of political work. This movie acknowledges that, and doesn't dress it up as something else instead. It doesn't throw up his hands and say that we're screwed, but it's not exactly optimistic, either.

You'll notice that I haven't mentioned race at all. Of course, the movie's "hook" -- what I, and probably a lot of other people, thought it was going to be about, is Cassius using his "white voice" and becoming a huge success. When I say that it turns out, instead, to be a critique of today's capitalist society, I am not saying that the racial aspect isn't central, because in fact, the two are completely intertwined. The rap scene is the most vivid example; Cassius' shocked realization that humans are just raw material to be exploited and used up happens right after we see a crowd greedily soaking in his blackness, completely irregardless of his personality or his abilities. There is a lot more to say about this, and I would also really like to think more about Detroit (wonderfully played by Tessa Thompson), and especially about the way the movie leaves you in suspense over the potential threat that a romantic conflict presents (in a movie that is already very dude-heavy) -- but I really do have to get back to work now.

17 July 2018

Who is America?

I'm not a big fan of Sacha Baron Cohen.* But I felt a weird sense of obligation to at least check out the new show because I'd heard that he poses as a Gender Studies professor from Reed College, my alma mater, and my sense of obligation is weird. I find Sascha Baron Cohen's schtick mostly pretty uncomfortable and unpleasant, and not especially funny. And I was assuming that the show would basically involve a lot of scenes designed to amuse liberals by exposing Trump supporters as idiots or hypocrites, a project that I'm not all that excited by. All this is to say: I assumed that I wouldn't like it. And for the most part, I didn't, but I will say that it's a lot smarter -- and more insidious -- than I gave it credit for, and parts of it were actually quite powerful.

The opening encounter is between SBC and Bernie Sanders. SBC plays a crazy anti-Obamacare activist who tries to persuade Sanders that instead of complaining about the 1%, he should just help everybody else move into it. Sanders, the purist, doesn't take the easy out of saying that his policies aim to do just that, but instead points out the math problem involved. It's completely ridiculous, but I did get a chuckle out of SBC's explanation of how you can accomplish this transformation by moving first moving the 9 from 99 into the 1, making it 19, and onwards. It's just so gloriously absurd, I couldn't help it.
  But in typical SBC style, the real target here isn't Sanders. He is his usual gruff, snappish self, and while clearly annoyed and impatient, he is never actively rude or unpleasant. Rather, we are to laugh at the character SBC is playing. And parts of this character are the run-of-the-mill features that are pretty much typical jabs at the crazed conspiracy-theory right-winger: alternative facts and bad math. But the man's repulsive physical appearance, and the fact that he's in a motorized scooter (not because he's disabled, but to conserve his body's resources), are from a nastier strain. It's exactly what I don't like about SBC.

The second round is the Gender Studies prof character (I never heard Reed get mentioned, but maybe I missed it?) dining with a staunchly pro-Trump couple. This is where the show does something semi-clever, namely, it completely turns the tables on the viewers expecting to get to mock some Trumpies for being intolerant misogynist racists. The couple is absolutely charming and extremely likable. As SBC says increasingly outrageous things, they are consistently polite, even as they struggle to maintain their composure. At one point the wife reminds her husband not to judge others (his facial expressions are fantastic). They are nothing like what you imagine Trump supporters to be -- if you ran into them socially and didn't discuss politics, you could easily assume they were Democrats. The real object of humor here is the Gender Studies prof, and the crazy things he believes. It's a vicious satire of identity politics. I fast forwarded through most of it, not because I'm a precious snowflake, but because it was boring and kind of gross.

The third round is in some ways the most interesting. SBC plays a newly released convict who visits an art gallery trying to peddle with paintings. The joke here is that the paintings are created out of his feces and ejaculate, and the gallery owner takes them seriously as art. And here, I guess, the joke's on me too, because I don't think there's anything dumb about that. And I actually kind of liked the paintings.
   There's a subtle jab here, though, at the borderline sexual excitement that the elite art world derives from appreciating the suffering of others. At one point he says that the subject of one portrait retaliated by raping him, which emphasizes the point, perhaps, but effectively derails the argument, because most people will probably see it as "ha ha, prison rape." It's unfortunate, not just because that's an appalling rape joke, but because it's a lost opportunity for meaningful critique.
  That said -- I enjoyed the sexual energy of the scene. The gallery owner has claimed that she had no idea what was going on, and maybe she didn't, but she gamely goes along for the ride, even donating some of her pubic hair to the cause. She keeps a straight face through the most disgusting explanations of the paintings (which, god help me, I laughed at), but she isn't pious about it (this is probably why the aforementioned critique never quite takes off -- she's too sardonic). I liked her. I came away from it with a sense of appreciation for the weird, wonderful, kinky nature of the art world.

The final segment is the one you've probably seen on facebook or whatever, where SBC plays an Israeli "terrorism expert" promoting his program of training 4 year olds to use weapons. The caricature of Israeli military types raises the same issues that most of SBC's characters do -- something I wrote about years ago in my post on Borat, when it came out (which by the way is a lot more generous than I remember feeling). But leaving that aside, this isn't, I think, "tricking" Republicans any more than Stephen Colbert ever did. I have zero sympathy. These guys were willing to go on camera and endorse a program to arm 4-year-olds. Because they're fucking insane.
  This portion is fairly brilliantly executed. After the character is established, we see him talking to Florida Rep Matt Gaetz, who hears him out but refuses to give an answer. “Typically members of Congress don’t just hear a story about a program and then indicate whether they support it or not,” he says, giving himself an out -- and perfectly setting up the next sequence of a series of men who are cheerfully willing to indicate their support.
  This is paired with a devastating "infomercial" that SBC makes with the help of Philip Van Cleave,  which is basically a brightly-colored show for kids, teaching them to load Puppy Pistol with his bullet lunchbox. It's scathing, and very funny, and totally horrific.
  The cherry on top is a conversation with Larry Pratt, who is so blatantly racist and misogynist that he could be a caricature, but guess what, he isn't. It almost feels like a cheap shot, but here, again, I can't help myself, I'm glad that piece of shit got caught saying it on camera. It might not sway any of his supporters, but at least it's on the record now.

So, overall: it's better than I expected. It is, I think, truly taking aim at both sides of the political spectrum, though it remains to be seen how much people actually understand that. But it probably does just as much bad as good. The humor is sometimes smart and deserved, but just as often crude and reinforcing hurtful or awful stereotypes. This is part of what makes SBC so interesting, perhaps: that he absolutely refuses the moral highground that good satire seemingly depends on, and creates something a lot muddier.

I have to confess that I'm curious, in spite of myself, to see what happens next.

15 June 2018

A More Beautiful and Terrible History, by Jeanne Theoharis

The Preface to the book lays out its compelling thesis: that civil rights history has been sanitized, transformed into a "narrative of dreamy heroes and accidental heroines." (xiii) Radical critiques of structural inequality have been replaced with feel-good stories of individual heroism that furthermore place their struggle firmly in the past, allowing them to be safely celebrated in the present without threatening the status quo. Everyone is allowed to feel good about themselves for being part of a nation whose history includes such glorious heroism -- indeed, she says, such revisionism casts the movement as "an almost inevitable aspect of American democracy rather than as the outcome of Black organization." (x)  Theoharis offers a clear, compelling, evidence-laden explanation of how "the recounting of national histories is never separate from present day politics." (xi) -- one I will very likely assign to students in the future. What we need, she says, is more honest, uncomfortable history, so as to act more effectively in the present, to perceive current injustices and more effectively strategize how they can be overcome.

The book is frequently a blistering critique of the complacency wrought by a comfortable ignorance. To see the press, for instance, as a powerful instrument within the struggle is to overlook the fact that the press regularly did not cover -- and continues to ignore -- the various efforts of Black organizers, presenting protests as isolated incidents, the actions of an ungrateful populace. We frequently see movies as powerful political statements, but over and over, Theoharis shows us how films like Detroit or The Butler are guilty of the same kinds of misrepresentation. She is particularly excoriating in writing about how people in the North, in cities such as Boston or Detroit, congratulated themselves for open-mindedness, even as they enacted policies every bit as vicious as those in the supposedly more racist South. The book is a fascinating and truly eye-opening account, an absolutely necessary corrective to a history that is frequently invoked but rarely, we realize, engaged with in any meaningful way.

But it is also extremely repetitive, and structured in a somewhat befuddled way, such that it keeps doubling back to add another point to an earlier example, to remind us of how something discussed before is relevant here as well. I wondered, first, whether this was because it was written for a popular audience rather than an academic one, but then, whether this was a product of the author's anger and frustration.

One of the things that is really striking about the book -- and this could be because I listened to the audio version, and the narrator added a certain inflection, or it could be me projecting, but I really don't think so -- is that it radiates pure rage. How could it not, talking about Jeff Sessions touting his appreciation for Rosa Parks, or Trump's comments about Frederick Douglass "being recognized more and more"? Did you know that FBI training now includes a trip to the MLK Memorial in DC, where future agents pick a favorite quote to discuss? It's absolutely crazy-making. And then you layer on a discussion of how Black Lives Matter or Standing Rock activists are unfavorably compared to their predecessors, and you can see how someone with a detailed knowledge of the past would be inclined to LET ME JUST SAY THIS ONE MORE TIME IN CASE YOU MISSED IT BEFORE.

But I do also wonder about the differences between academic and mass-market non-fiction. I've been reading a lot more non-fiction in the last few years, mostly because there are things I want to learn about. Often as not, I find myself wishing they were more academic. I think people see the books for a general audience as being written with less jargon, in a more approachable style, but the writing often seems grating and flat to me (I *hated* Devil in the White City, for instance, even though the story was pretty cool, and a lot of Ghettoside came off as trite to my ears). What I really miss though, especially in a book like China's Second Continent, is an argument, or at very least, some active reflection. Less facts, more ideas! You'd think that such directness would be more typical of the mass-market works, and you do find it in more political writing (like this book, or The New Jim Crow), but it still seems more typical of academic books, to me. Admittedly, though, when I think of academic monographs, I do think of something dense (and I don't just mean the spacing on the page, though that honestly is probably part of it), that I can't just pick up and read casually. Whence this sense of weight, I wonder?