It’s been a while since I’ve posted. Work, childcare, political work, manuscript projects, everything overdetermined by pandemic and pandemic exhaustion has got in the way of blogging. So in lieu of having anything that meaningful to say, and simply to write an enjoyable blog post, I want to blog about the 2021 book pile (excluding my job related reading, which is largely a massive amount of rereading) I’m currently working my way through. These are the books I’m currently working my way through, moving from one to the other, and not the ones I recently finished (such as Dylan Rodríguez’s White Reconstruction and LaRose T. Parris’ Being Apart), since I tend to read multiple books at once. Also, I tend to be a slower reading during work seasons due to work related reading––and also the pandemic has made me slower. Still, I’m enjoying the ongoing process of reading these books and finding interesting connections as I jump back and forth between texts.
1. Epidemic Empire (Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb)
An excellent examination of the archive of the discourses of contagion that imperialism has used from the 19th Century up to the War on Terror days to conceptualize its orientalized other. There’s some great archival work regarding the intersections of fiction and colonial discourse, as well as the impact on the practice of medical science. “So too did colonial medical surveillance and methods of research bleed into literary space,” Raza Kolb writes,”where they joined a looser set of anxieties associated with empire. In addition to contagion, other fears like rebellion, miscegenation, degeneracy, and dissipation were enormously important drivers of nineteenth-century culture and science.” (85)
What’s really neat about this book is that it was drafted and accepted before the COVID pandemic, and yet is entirely relevant to the imperialist discourse surrounding the current pandemic. The author added a preface to discuss her work in regards to the current pandemic, which makes complete sense, and it’s interesting that the book turned out to be as timely as it was. Avoiding both the simplistic anti-science and triumphalist pro-science narratives, the book largely documents the ways in which science is practiced within social relations (since scientists, being human, are not outside of ideology) and how science and the social imbricate each other.
I am a little surprised that there is no direct reference to Angela Mitropoulos’ Contagion and Contract––parts of which I was actually teaching at the time I picked up Epidemic Empire––largely because I think they compliment each other quite well. Since Mitropoulos’ foundational work on the same general area provided an entire theoretical apparatus to think contagion in relation to capitalism and imperialism, against the normative Foucauldian “biopolitics” conception, I think (well at least at this stage of reading Raza Kolb) that Epidemic Empire would have benefitted from engaging with Mitropoulos. But I know that authors cannot always be aware, let alone read, every book connected to their subject matter… As the next book on my reading pile should indicate.
2. On Logic and the Theory of Science (Jean Cavaillès)
Cavaillès is barely known outside of France and yet his name shows up in multiple key works of post-WW2 French philosophy. For example, Foucault and Badiou reference him (with different values placed on his work). Bachelard and Canguilhem wrote the prefaces of this book. I have been meaning to read Cavaillès for a while, and thankfully this work was just given a new translation and published in 2021 and I was able to order one of the advance copies.
Despite being a mathematician interested in the philosophy of math and science, Cavaillès was also involved in the armed resistance against Nazi occupied France. Imprisoned by the Vichy regime for his partisan activities, he wrote this book while incarcerated. Rather than writing about fascism and resistance while in prison, he instead worked on his ideas about math and science: “Science is a Reimannian volume, closed and yet without any exterior.” (67) There was clearly an intersection, for him, between understanding science and resistance. But after escaping this incarceration he was later caught and executed by a fascist firing squad; such a relationship was never able to be worked out in a successive work.
I wish I had been able to read this book, and given the opportunity to think through its claims, before writing Demarcation and Demystification. I also appreciate how it flies in the face of claims that French philosophy was disconnected from the supposed “scientific” concerns that would found analytic philosophy––and that would eventually bequeath us with the anti-communism of Karl Popper––since the work of Cavaillès demonstrates that there were French scientists concerned with the meaning of science who also impacted philosophy. His suspicion of Logic as foundation of Math, and thus his opposition to the work of Whitehead and Russell, demonstrates that dyed in the wool mathematicians were more than capable of taking analytic philosophy to task as scientists-turned-philosophers rather than philosophers commenting on science. The existence of his work again proves that French philosophy is not merely defined by the anti-logical and anti-scientific turn of Foucault and other post-structuralists.
3. Blackpentecostal Breath (Ashon T. Crawley)
I’ve been slowly struggling through this book, with both Rodríguez’s White Reconstruction and Parris’ Being Apart passing it by, largely because of its difficult apparatus regarding the intersection of philosophy and theology. At the same time, I’ve enjoyed many of its claims about the resistant side of Christianity due to my upbringing. I find Crawley’s critique of categorical thinking, particularly how it is inherited from Kantian thinking, challenging. While I find categories important, and also feel that Crawley is making categorical statements about categorical thinking, he makes a lot of good points that need to be accounted for and definitely thought through. This critique of categorization, in fact, intersects with––or at least runs adjacent with––some of my own critiques about philosophy in Demarcation and Demystification.
For example, what Crawley calls “theology-philosophy” is similar to my critique of philosophy as “speculative theology” and the way philosophical systems have sought to provide categorical scaffolding to reality. It is perhaps here where I can agree fully with Crawley about the problems of categorization, if we take this kind of categorization and categorical thinking to be the philosophical systematization of speculative categories that occult reality but are really inherited from ideology. Kant’s supposed “universal” ethics and aesthetics being perfect examples: categories inherited from the nascent bourgeois order and the settler-colonial/plantation world of his time taken to be eminently logical.
Moreover, despite the book’s grounding in the Black Radical tradition, the moments where Crawley brings in elements from Marx (from On The Jewish Question, the Grundrisse, and even letters between Marx and Jenny von Westphalen) demonstrate a care for melding radical traditions. I particularly loved this passage:
“According to Marx’s Grundrisse, work-time makes an individual unfree, work-time is the condition of enslavement. If this is correct, then enslaved Africans were, of necessity, constantly ‘at work,’ ‘on the clock,’ punching perpetual timecards without any relief. And this because if enslavement and work-time are coterminous, one enslaved will not have had the ability to ‘own’ one’s labor power and would be, thus, in a continuous mode of work. Planting and hoeing? Work. Sleeping and praying? Work. Transatlantic enslavement would then have been the condition that eliminated the possibility of non-work-time; it was, essentially, an attack on––through the creation of a violently, exclusionary, categorically distinct––temporality. This temporality, the temporality of racial capital––the temporality, then, of western theological-philosophical thought––is always a racialized temporality, a temporality grounded in the capacity to produce racial difference, racial distinction as a timeless timeliness.” (172)
4. Confronting the Democratic Discourse of Librarianship (Sam Popowich)
I don’t know much about the history of libraries and the discourses of librarianship in Canada and the US (and perhaps the UK?), but my instinct was to see them as Ideological State Apparatuses. Popowich has so far confirmed this instinct in his historical materialist analysis of the history of the library institution and his critique of the “democratic discourse of librarianship” that is bound up with capitalist ideology and, in Canada and the US, settler-colonial ideology.
One thing I find interesting and timely about this book is how the democratic discourse of librarianship is a perfect institutionalized example of the liberal dogma of free speech. Libraries within capitalism, as they are conceived by this discourse and how they have developed, are coterminous to the myth of the marketplace of ideas, the presumptions of formal equality, and conceived as “neutral” spaces (when they are not neutral, as Popowich argues) for democratic discourse––democracy meaning, here, the free debate of any and every idea. But “[t]he problem of intellectual freedom vs social responsibility in bourgeois society,” Popowich writes, “exists not merely in our theory and our perspectives, but in bourgeois reality itself; it is part of the fabric of capitalist society. As a result, the solution to the contradiction between intellectual freedom and social responsibility is insoluble under capitalism; it can only be solved in a future society, one separated from us by revolution, and which can only be reached by way of revolution. That society would not only require us taking a larger perspective on the question, it would produce that perspective.” (40) This quotation also reveals something else I like about this book: it is not only an historical materialist discourse analysis, it is also guided by the revolutionary ethos of the Marxist tradition in that it recognizes, from the very beginning, the necessity of revolution. Who knew that a book about libraries could be so engaging!
Since I’m only 70 pages into this book at the time of writing this post, one think I’m still curious about is the way in which Popowich juxtaposes the discourse of democracy inherent in normative librarianship with what he takes to be authentic democracy, the latter being the procedural politics in an emancipated society. Lenin argued that there is no such thing as “pure democracy” since it is governmental procedure of class dictatorship: thus there is a bourgeois democracy just as there can be a proletarian democracy (under socialism), with both being “democratic” but just different class forms of democracy. Under a classless (communist) society, then, democracy would be a meaningless term since there is no longer a state with representatives that require democratic participation. Similarly, in Counter-History of the Present, Gabriel Rockhill called democracy an “empty signifier”. So I’m interested how this problematic will be developed by Popowich, especially since so far he has drawn quite a bit from Lenin.
5. The Poverty of Philosophy (Karl Marx)
A reread, and one done with a reading group, but a reread that has been a long time coming since the last time I read this book I was still within my autonomist Marxist phase. Indeed, it’s kind of funny rereading this book and looking at the marginalia I write way back when, at a time when my ideology was different, and comparing past Josh to present Josh.
The one thing that jumps out at me now, during this reread, is the emphasis on class antagonism. The irreconcilability of social classes is fundamental to this text. At multiple points, Marx emphasizes that every class society, and especially capitalism, is in the last instance determined by this “general antagonism” between social classes. That is, every mode of production to date is “founded on antagonism.” (122) Against that sanitized discourse promulgated by some academic Marxists––where Marx is treated as simply diagnosing the problems of capitalism with a kind of liberal sensibility––The Poverty of Philosophy is a great text since it demonstrates that he was wholly invested in an illiberal progressive ethos: class revolution.
As an aside, I’m still somewhat confused by those anarchists invested in Proudhon who think that this book is an “unfair” treatment of Proudhon’s The Philosophy of Poverty. Back in my anarchist stage I read Proudhon, and it was The Poverty of Philosophy, among other things, that made me realize that Proudhon was a shitty thinker and that Marxism had more to offer.
6. The Only Good Indians (Stephen Graham Jones)
This is the one book of fiction that I’m reading right now, amidst all this non-fiction, and I can’t believe that it has taken me this long to read one of the great contemporary literary horror writers, who is also an Indigenous author, until now. This book is amazing: a horror novel about how the past catches up with the present, but grounded in the realities of the reserve. Yes, I’m reading it slowly between my nonfiction reads and my job rereads, and enjoying it as a break from this normal reading while also being supremely creeped out. I mean, early on being presented with a section called “The House That Ran Red” was entirely ominous. The whole book is an unfolding of horror but with a colonized sensibility, a deeper and unspoken notion that colonialism is the ultimate horror.
It’s harder for me to say something meaningful about a novel I haven’t yet finished than the non-fiction works discussed above. But at the very least I can say this book is both compelling and haunting. The only reason I haven’t finished it yet is because I have kept it for my “family reading time” and have thus delayed completing its narrative. I look forward to reading more works by this author, and going over his backlist, in the future. The moments of horrific alienation in the text that combined with real word immiseration were extremely well done.