“What’s this gay shit?” my friend asked, spotting my copy of I’m Very Into You (Semiotext(e), 2015) on the bar. Funny, I doubt either of its authors would be offended by his words, perhaps not even by their context. Whatever one calls it, the brief relationship between McKenzie Wark and Kathy Acker lingers on 20 years later.
Wark met Acker in July of 1995 when she was visiting Sydney, Australia. The next year, he visited her in San Francisco. Their brief relationship, which largely existed between those two meetings, is chronicled via their collected emails in I’m Very Into You: Correspondence 1995–1996. Like everyone who came in contact with her, Wark was irrevocably inspired. “She would just read a book and re-write it,” he tells V. Vale (2014). “Sitting cross-legged on the floor, she would just read Treasure Island and re-write it. You don’t wait for inspiration, you just get going” (p. 21). Acker left no stone unthrown, no line uncrossed. Wark continues, “When I met her, she had three books… And she was writing Pussy, King of the Pirates (Grove, 1996). It’s one-third Treasure Island and two-thirds something else, and she would just read these three books and, almost at random, re-write them” (p. 22). It was her version of the Burroughs and Gysin cut-up method, filtered through an abject letting-go of the bullshit. Call it feminism, call it punk, call it postmodernism, call it piracy or plagiarism; it’s Acker’s own brand of creative destruction.
Reading her critics, one gets the sense that they haven’t actually read much of her work. I am intentionally hedging on much of what is discussed directly in I’m Very Into You here because it feels just that raw. Reading it is by turns heady and heartbreaking, revelatory and naughty. Watching two minds of such depth and creativity unfold to each other is a lot to take in. As authorized as it might be, I’m Very Into You is the most intimate email leak ever. However, there is much to be learned in its disclosures.
When all that’s known is sick, the unknown has to look better.
— from Empire of the Senseless by Kathy Acker
Lost & Found: The City University of New York Poetics Document Initiative just released Homage to Leroi Jones & Other Early Works (Lost & Found, 2015), edited by Gabrielle Kappes. This chapbook collects the works of a 25-year-old Kathy Acker who lives in Manhattan with a cat named Lizard and strips in a Times Square sex shop. Written in the waning months of 1972, these writing exercises, journal entries, and clipped poems are the prototypes of the deconstructed style Acker came to be known for, queering everything in its path. Wark once wrote of her that “…she wrote as a woman, inventing what that might be as she went along” (quoted in Acker & Wark, 2015, p. 139). These writings are the beginnings of that process.
“If there’s going to be interesting fiction written in America, it’s probably going to be by women,” Ken Wark tells V. Vale (p. 33). Here’s hoping the unearthing of more Kathy Acker writings unleashes another wave of women writers.
Acker, Kathy. (1988). Empire of the Senseless. New York: Grove Press, p. 33.
Acker, Kathy. (2015). Homage to Leroi Jones and Other Early Works. New York: Lost & Found.
Acker, Kathy & Wark, McKenzie. (2015). I’m Very Into You. New York: Semiotext(e).
As school finally releases its grip on our attention and summer eases in around us, it’s time to peruse book pages for pleasure. If you’re like me, you’re still working through stuff from last year’s list. As my friend Kristin Ross tweeted recently, “Lately when I think about my mortality, the primary sadness I feel is in regards to all the books on my ‘to-read’ shelf.” We may never get to them all, but here are 2014’s summer recommendations.
This year’s list boasts newcomers Christopher Schaberg, Brian McFarland, and Alice Marwick, as well as veteran Summer Reading Listers Ashley Crawford, Lance Strate, Mark Amerika, Brad Vivian, Lily Brewer, Peter Lunenfeld, Alex Burns, danah boyd, Steve Jones, Zizi Papacharissi, Dominic Pettman, Benjamin Bratton, and myself. As usual, unless otherwise noted, the book links will lead you to the book’s page on the Powell’s site, the greatest bookstore on the planet.
I’ve picked up some second hand books that I intend to enjoy this summer, including two from Ralph Waldo Emerson. One is a stray volume of his collected works that combines two of his major publications, The Conduct of Life and Society and Solitude (Macmillan, 1910). The other is Ralph Waldo Emerson: Essays and Journals (Programmed Classics, 1968), selected and with an introduction by Lewis Mumford (which alone is worth the price of purchasing the book). And then there’s Understanding Understanding (Harper & Row, 1974), by Humphrey Osmond, with John A. Osmond and Jerome Agel, which I am understandably curious about.
For poetry, I can’t wait to delve into the long awaited volume from Dale Winslow, Tinderbox (NeoPoiesis, 2013). And in graphic novels, there’s Volume 21 of The Walking Dead, real brain food that I’ll no doubt gobble up in one sitting when it comes out in a few weeks.
The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell (Penguin, 2013) charts “a year’s watch in nature”—the author goes out to the same small plot of forest every day over the course of a year, and reflects on being (and non-being) at myriad scales. Haskell calls this place the “mandala”: seen in a certain way, it’s like a microcosm of the universe. The book reminded me of object-oriented ontology put into practice. In other words, it’s a work of praxis: an experiment in constraint and wonder, with the fruits (or more precisely, flora and fauna) of this endeavor recorded in sprightly prose.
But what if the mandala were not a spot in the woods, but a color? And what if the temporal frame were not a year but ongoing, indeterminate and blurry? Maggie Nelson’s Bluets (Wave Books, 2009) reflects on blue hues across literary, artistic, and philosophical registers, and as the color shoots through her own life in ways that are at turns visceral and vaporous, ambient and affective. The book unfolds as a sequence of playfully (il)logical propositions, at once echoing Wittgenstein while venturing into new poetic territory.
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen has taken the impulse to color in another direction. His searching edited collection Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory Beyond Green (University of Minnesota Press, 2014) does exactly what it’s title says: It pushes way beyond traditional “green” readings of nature, environment, and ecology. The chapters find deep reservoirs of semiotic value and biotic interplay across the spectrum of colors, reaching into perceptual zones as seemingly unnatural and alien as x-ray and ultraviolet. Collectively, this book comprises a tour de force that could be the core of an entire seminar on cutting edge environmental theory. (I plan to adopt the book this way in an environmental humanities seminar at Loyola University New Orleans in the near future.)
Of course a more traditional way to go about ecological thinking is to ground it in place. Jim Harrison’s latest collection of novellas, The River Swimmer (Grove Press, 2014), revolves around my own home region of northern Michigan. The two novellas in this collection (“The Land of Unlikeness” and “The River Swimmer”) are paragons of the form; even as their plot lines unravel typical (for Harrison) male fantasies and nativist wish images, the stories are gently hilarious, disturbingly violent, softly sublime, and eerily haunting. Harrison has a way with the novella that exhibits incredible formal control and concision, even as the stories sprawl out to epic and even magical proportions. Throughout each story, the aura of Michigan seeps through details as striking and elusive as the spring marshy air, the texture of river currents, and rare bird calls.
Another geography I recently found myself reading about, somewhat unexpectedly, was New York City. Thomas Beller’s new biography of J.D. Salinger (subtitled The Escape Artist; New Harvest, 2014) suggests that the landscape and atmosphere of New York shaped Salinger’s writing and consciousness to a large degree. I don’t know the city terribly well, and I have not read a single work of fiction by Salinger (I know, I know!), but the fact that Beller manages to lure me into and guide me through these intertwined (and to me, unfamiliar) topographies speaks to a certain ecological acuity present in the book. But it’s an eccentric ecology, attuned to human culture and the patterns and quirks of things like publishing, personae, and literary production. To call this biography ‘ecological’ may sound strange, but it’s precise in the sense that Beller breaks from a simple, linear-narrative biography and develops something more networked, something more (to recover a theoretical term perhaps overused but still apt here) rhizomatic.
I read two kinds of books during the summer: academic books that get me jazzed about research, and anything page-turnery I can read on my Kindle while lying around in the sun.
I’m in an academic book club and by far our favorite title this year was Alice Goffman’s On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City (University of Chicago Press, 2014). It’s a mind-blowing ethnography of young black men in a poor neighborhood in Philadelphia, and how the constant intrusion of the police and penal system systematically undermines their familial and romantic relationships. Goffman is a really gifted writer, and her book not only hammers home the horrific social impact of American mass incarceration of African-American youth, but includes a methods chapter where she discusses how living in a primarily black, masculine environment for six years affected her own subjectivity and relationship to academia. It’s the rare academic book I can’t put down and I would recommend it to anyone.
Goffman’s book has inspired me to finally read legal scholar Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2012) which tackles the same issues from a legal perspective. Alexander examines how today’s legal system has perpetrated systemic African-American disenfranchisement and inequality, much like the Jim Crow laws of years past.
In fiction, my favorite discovery of the year was the Steerswoman series by Rosemary Kirstein. I’m a huge fan of science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction, but I get very irritated by writers who can imagine a world with cybernetic augmentation, mass terraforming, etc. etc. but can’t get beyond run-of-the-mill patriarchy. Kirstein’s Steerswomen are scholars who travel around their realm, making detailed maps and observations about the natural environment. This, of course, deeply appealed to me as a social scientist, and I loved seeing Rowan, the chief steerswoman, use her version of the scientific method to puzzle through the various trials and tribulations that come her way. While the setting seems at first to be your typical medieval fantasy world, Kirstein expertly reveals throughout the series that it may be more than it seems. A fantastic, engaging series that is simultaneously nerdy and feminist. I can’t recommend these books highly enough, especially now that the rights have reverted to Kirstein and she’s released them all as ebooks.
I’m also planning on reading the second volume of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, which is also speculative fiction but from an almost Lovecraftian perspective. The first book, Annihilation (FSG Originals, 2014), described a team of scientists sent out to explore the abandoned Area X. Why it was abandoned, who commissioned the expedition, and what happened to the previous teams remains a mystery, but the sense of dread that sets in as you watch the biologist, the anthropologist, the psychologist, and the surveyor—all women—navigate the uncertainty of the landscape. Without putting too fine a point on it, this book creeped me the hell out. The second book, Authority (FSG Originals, 2014), focuses on the institutional apparatus that supports the expeditions, which doesn’t sound terrifying but I’m hoping doesn’t lose the momentum of the first.
Other than that, I’ll be finally trying to finish The Goldfinch (Little, Brown & Co., 2013), which is like half of a really good book interspersed with a lot of boring short stories, catching up on various mystery, sci-fi, and dystopian series that have new books out, and perhaps making a dent in my “to read” PDF folder. Preferably while out in the sun.
Krysztof Michalski’s The Flame of Eternity (Princeton University Press, 2013) provides a reexamination and new interpretation of Nietzsche’s philosophy and the central role that the concepts of eternity and time, as he understood them, played in it.
If you read this as a confused teenager seeking power amid your angst, this book will remind you of the joy and freedom that was embedded within all that poetry. While reading I had that rare joy (that only books can provide) of remembering a former self experiencing a book and transforming that experience by re-visiting the text again. That’s not so clear, but Krysztof Michalski had the same fascination with passages that confounded my younger self- and here I was years later remembering that confusion and achieving understanding of it many years later. A powerful read and the author does a nice job of making difficult concepts clear.
This summer, I’m studying various books on the subject of witnessing. Last year, I researched treatises on time and politics and, presently, I’m seeking to analyze the rhetoric of witnessing in light of temporality and the politics of time. To that end, my summer reading list features works that approach witnessing from unconventional angles and, in so doing, attempt to understand it in novel ways.
Kelly Oliver’s Witnessing: Beyond Recognition (University of Minnesota Press, 2001) illustrates one of the best features of her writing in general: her ability to connect canonical philosophical concepts and lineages to the concrete realities of public and political affairs. Here, she relates the Hegelian politics of recognition to conventional humanitarian, moral, or political discourse that assumes one witnesses in order to identify the basis for some common humanity and historical experience. Oliver helpfully pushes our approach to witnessing beyond recognition, in whatever form, as its guiding telos.
In this context, I also plan to closely study Jacques Derrida’s Sovereignties in Question: The Poetics of Paul Celan (Fordham University Press, 2005). This text is reputed to feature many of Derrida’s customary deconstructive topoi-my interest resides, in particular, in the extent to which that his reflections throughout Sovereignties are said to echo his remarks on impossibility and possibility elsewhere regarding related topics-specifically, forgiveness and mourning. That is, I’m interested in his understanding of how the impossibility of something like witnessing, forgiveness, or mourning might nonetheless accomplish productive ethical and political work.
Finally, I’ll be preoccupied with Marianne Hirsch’s The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust (Columbia University Press, 2012). In this text, Hirsch takes up a line of thought that others have begun to explore in their own scholarship (notably Celia Lury in Prosthetic Culture and Alison Landsberg in Prosthetic Memory): namely, the degree to which one can remember someone else’s memories. Many discourses of witnessing presuppose that memories may somehow be affectively transferred from survivors or participants in history to future generations who did not witness the original events. This kind of work necessarily involves reflections on the communication of memory via literature, art, and media while raising important questions about the ethics and politics of witnessing.
I graduated from my SAIC Art History graduate program last May, and within the first 25 days of said graduation, starved for novels, I had read 15 novels, textbooks, and other non-fictions: I feel I have read all the great books already, but will continue to pursue others. Here is a representative sample of both.
After reading Lydia Davis’ remarkable collection of short stories in Varieties of Disturbance (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2007), wherein one story she outlines a systematic, syntactical, and secretly heartbreaking analysis of 27 fourth graders’ get-well letters to a classmate Steven. I’ve dipped my toes in her The End of the Story from 1995, but so far have found it more depressing than my summer warrants. Especially when read alongside S. D. Chrostowska’s Permission (Dalkey Archive, 2013), written as multiple emails’ soliloquy with image attachments, I’ve found that contemporary fiction writing, for me, needs to be carefully vetted by the public before I set my eyes to it. However, learning from my mistake and in an ameliorative effort, Tan Lin’s Seven Controlled Vocabularies (Wesleyan, 2010) so far relieves me with strange, sparse, deadpan scans of the backs of books, discount cards, and “Wet Paint” signs, and the narrative is obscure, or rather clandestine, or maybe not even there, and refreshing. I’m tired of narratives.
With that said, despite his overwrought account of the failure of memory in the sleepy wake of post-WWII PTSD, W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (New Directions, 1999) records scattered memories of scenes as they come to the narrator, with images anchored within two lines of its antecedent. I hope the image and text in his The Emigrants (New Directions, 1997) is just as meticulously and personally designed when I begin it soon.
Christian Bok’s Crystallography (Coach House Books, 1999) inspired me toward Jacques Roubaud’s Mathematics (Dalkey Archive, 2012), but unfortunately in name only: Bok’s stupifyingly researched, fractal, picture poem on crystals and their study has eaten Roubaud for breakfast. Giving the latter a shot anyway, I thought his memoir on his mathematical academic career would be as cynical toward the academy as Barbara Browning’s detective(?) novel I’m Trying to Reach You (complete with screenshots of YouTube videos of, likely, the author herself in interpretive dance performances inspired by the death of Michael Jackson; Two Dollar Radio, 2012) and maybe even Chris Kraus’ memoir/erotica/art-history-laced-in-latex Video Green (Semiotext(e), 2004), but both Mathematics and Kraus’ novel Summer of Hate (Semiotext(e), 2012) have fallen short so far. I have high hopes anyway while finishing those and Roubaud’s The Loop (Dalkey Archive, 2009).
Finally and always already on my list are Sylvia Plath’s journals, Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, Jacob Bronowski’s works on science and its critics, and textbooks on our solar system’s planetary landscapes. Like the tradition set by Marianne Moore and the second law of thermodynamics, this female, like her Amazon shopping cart, is a chaos.
Summer reading this year will veer even further toward pleasure and away from work, and even more toward indulging my interests in popular music, I’m glad to say. In no particular order I’m looking forward to reading Romany and Tom: A Memoir, by Ben Watt, that promises to be a fascinating look at British music and life before the Beatles broke. For somewhat similar voyeuristic reasons, you might say, I’m planning to read Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home (Little, Brown & Co., 2014), for its chronicling of the home life of people at the center of 1980s literary London. Holly George-Warren’s biography of Alex Chilton, A Man Called Destruction (Viking Adult, 2014), is also on my list. I’ve only known the Chilton myths, so I’m looking forward to something a bit more journalistic about hiim. I’ve also got Lisa Robinson’s There Goes Gravity (Riverhead, 2014) on the list, for light reading and a laugh. To round out the music titles I’ve got Greg Kot’s, I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers, and the March up Freedom’s Highway (Scribner, 2014). The Staples family have a singular place in popular music that I hope Kot is able to contextualize. I also very much want to read Alain-Fournier’s The Lost Domain (Oxford University Press, 2014), that’s actually been an intention for a long time. As I look at it now, it’s quite an indulgent list, really, and that makes me quite happy to see.
My reading list for summer 2014 is made up of largely overlooked titles. In most cases, they are lesser-known works by well-known authors, both fiction and non-fiction. In a couple cases, it’s a chance for me re-visit some favorites that have strongly influenced my recent work. If any of you read any of these over the next few weeks and write something on it, send me a link.
J.G. Ballard Crepuscular Enclave (Picador, 2014): This posthumously-published novel takes place in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, occupied by British forces who live and work behind what is supposed to be the most impenetrable fortress ever devised (obviously modeled on the USA’s Green Zone in Baghdad). After the mysterious disappearance of several soldiers, none of which are officially listed on the base’s manifest, the camp Psychiatrist begins to suspect that the real purpose of the compound is not what it seems. With with two of her patients, awaiting dishonorable discharge for desertion, she makes a furtive pact to investigate what is on the other side of the “barrier.” In time they come realize that “every outside is an inside”and that the architecture of the fortified enclave is the same as a concentration camp.
Hiromi Matsui and Ken Nomo, editors, She Gets Confused (Flying Over the Dateline): Tokyo-Los Angeles Art & Architectural Practices, 1990-99 (Rizzoli, 2013): The catalog for this show featuring art and architectural practices that were based in both Los Angeles and Tokyo during the 1990s and whose work expresses influences from both sides of the Pacific. Of particular interest are extremely inventive “mobile multimedia” projects, experimental manga titles that strongly influenced on the Osaka School of typography, and a series of UCLA student projects for the Japanese space program. I remember with fascination the essays debating the controversy over the design competition for a Yukio Mishima memorial in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo district (officially won by Angry Pineapple Now! after Studio Unit 731b withdrew in protest.) Purchase of the proposed site and construction of a memorial to the controversial right-wing Japanese poet, actor, body-builder, and political activist was provided by a local construction magnate, but outcry from Korean-American and Chinese-American Angelinos resulted in withdrawal of permits by the city. Amazing lenticular book cover design by APPPA.
Dr. Joseph Wang Programming Nanorobotics (O’Reilly, 2014): This introduction to programming essentials from O’Reilly Media books continues their excellent series of software/hardware primers in emerging programming fields. Nanorobotics has become a really interesting platform for design and development, especially in conjunction with standard 3D biotechnology tools. Autodesk’s systems are still the most widely used, including their prosumer iPad apps (like 123Gene and AutoProtein, which even my little boy can use to design DNA and print-to-order “biobricks”). I am more interested in what the new logic and behavior protocols can do (namely OOGL and NovoGenXL) especially in conjunction with Google’s Android Robotics OS. My previous work toying with nanotech skin-based sensing systems is something I would like to develop further for other surfaces with other machine behavior profiles.
Slavoj Žižek That Which is Not What it is Not (Punctum Books, 2014): I had a chance to spend some time with the intrepid Slovenian Philosopher earlier this summer at the European Graduate School in Switzerland, where we were both teaching. We had a memorable conversation about Jacques Lacan’s notion of “Lamella,” a kind of monstrous brainless undead asexually reproducing indestructible goop. Žižek has used the term in his reading of David Lynch films, as a substance that is horrific and uncanny. I pressed the point that as far as Astrobiology is concerned this kind of matter is pretty ordinary, and that the sorts of things that we take to be “normal” (having a face, inside the symbolic order, sexually reproducing, etc.) are really the bizarre and exceptional forms. He agreed with this (I think), and we discussed H.P. Lovecraft and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, which somehow lead him to anecdotes about Stalin’s body double’s true height and why he liked the new Robocop more than the original. Apparently, he deals with the concept of Lamella at greater length in this short independently published book, and even manages to relate it to the Dave Eggers/Emily Gould collaboration, The Tweed and Tonic Diaries (a text so deeply horrible that neither of us could bear to read more than a few pages —on that we agreed).
Alice Goffman’s On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City (University of Chicago Press, 2014) blew me away. Through deeply embedded ethnographic work, Goffman illustrates how young black men must navigate the abusive nature of policing practices from their earliest years, forcing them to develop sophisticated strategies to achieve some sense of agency in an unfair world. This book is raw and brilliant, providing key insights into aspects of American inequality that aren’t fully understood by more privileged folks.
Another book that delighted me to no end is Robin Nagle’s Picking Up (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2014), where she joins the New York City Department of Sanitation to better understand the often invisible infrastructure of waste collection that keeps our city functional. Did you know, for example, that more sanitation workers die on the job each year than policemen or firemen? And do you know the history of how NYC went from a site of filth to an impressively functional sanitation machine? This book will tell you this and more.
Most histories of the internet start with big tech companies. But if you dig deeper, there’s a more complex story. In the 1930s, the US government brought together leading artists like John Cage and the New Bauhaus folks alongside artistic organizations like MoMA and anthropologists like Margaret Mead to imagine what “democratic media” might look like in response to the “fascist media” of film. As Fred Turner beautifully documents in The Democratic Surround (University of Chicago Press, 2013), the communities that emerged around this helped imagine interactive technologies as we know them.
It’s easy to bash security theater when spending another day trying to navigate the TSA, but the US’s obsession with security isn’t just annoying; it’s downright dangerous. In Against Security (Princeton University Press, 2014), Harvey Molotch offers a series of case studies that shed light on how we used security to implement practices, policies, and infrastructure that fundamentally disenfranchises and harms the very people it’s designed to protect.
My publisher would probably murder me if I didn’t list my own book, published in February, among the list of key summer reading. It’s Complicated (Yale University Press, 2014) is an attempt to synthesize a decade’s worth of work into young people’s engagement with social technologies by responding to various fears and anxieties that enshroud discussions of youth. Kids do care about privacy. Bullying is more complicated than you think. The internet is not the great equalizer. And our online safety discussions are often a distraction to real risks youth face. More importantly, what teens are doing today is trying to reclaim a space of their own because we adults have made it so darn difficult for teens to socialize with their friends.
My bifurcated research into media art and media design trifurcated when I started looking at digital humanities as well, and with a long-standing project on the cultural history of Los Angeles, has now morphed, re-mixed, and metastasized into a weird beast that I no longer quite understand or recognize, but one that demands to be fed with bushels of books over summer breaks.
More than a decade ago I wrote an essay about speed-up called “25/8,” so I’m interested in Jonathan Crary’s take in 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (Verso, 2013). This book has been very present on my grad students’ bibliographies, and I want to catch up with them (an anxious mode of text-reception befitting precisely what I figure Crary will be discussing).
I read Lev Manovich’s Software Takes Command (Bloomsbury Academic, 2013) on-line over time as he posted various versions, but I want to sit down and take it in as a totality now that it’s been published in book form. The chapter on motion graphics is the best thing I’ve ever read on the subject, and the final version is copiously illustrated.
In co-writing Digital_Humanities (MIT Press, 2012), I had to come to grips with just how tenaciously literary scholars want to hold onto the field as “theirs,” even though it seems quite evident to me that DH is far more. That said, I want to look more deeply at two of the best from that side of the aisle, with a close reading of Franco Moretti’s Distant Reading (Verso, 2013) and a microanalysis of Matthew Jockers’ Macroanalysis: Digital Methods and Literary History (University of Illinois Press, 2013).
In a similar vein, I plan to dive into the catalogues from some major shows about LA architecture and design from the past year, with Wendy Kaplan’s California Design, 1930–1965: “Living in a Modern Way” from LACMA, the Getty’s Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940-1990 curated by Wim de Wit and Christopher James Alexander, and Never Built Los Angeles, which Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin organized for the A+D Museum.
Finally, I’ve decided that I want to read all of Ian Fleming’s original James Bond novels. There are only twelve of them, with two short story collections, written between 1951 and 1964. I probably should be reading them while drinking martinis (shaken but not stirred), but I’m an Angeleno, and it’s already hot outside, so I’ll be opting for cucumber-jalapeno margaritas instead.
Most of my summer reading will consist of canonical texts concerning “Eros & Civilization,” which is a new course I’ll be teaching at the New School for Social Research in the Fall. But when I manage to steal away from such agonistic Grand Narratives, I’ll be hopefully getting a chance to read the following:
Karl Ove Knausgaard My Struggle: Book 2 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014): Yes, obvious I know. But I found Book 1 as inexplicably compulsive as many others, and I’ve heard volume 2 is even more absorbing.
Eugene ThackerAn Ideal for Living (Gobbet Press, 2014): I read this techno-remix mind-melt in ms. form over ten years ago, and am keen to revisit it again, now that it’s been given a new life by Gobbet Press. A nice appetizer for Thacker’s incredibly transporting book on pessimism, which will hopefully come out in a year or so.
Eduardo Kohn How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human (University of California Press, 2013): People I trust have been raving about this book for the past year, so I better catch up. Kohn seems to be doing something similar, yet different, from what Hugh Raffles did in his splendid book, In Amazonia (Princeton University Press, 2002).
Yuriko Furuhata Cinema of Actuality: Japanese Avant-Garde Filmmaking in the Season of Image Politics (Duke University Press, 2013): This book won a SCMS prize a year or so ago, and having read some of Yuri’s subsequent work-in-progress, this has rocketed to the top of the to-read pile. She uses specific sites to do astonishing historical revisions of interest to any scholars of critical media theory. Plus, I envy her virtuoso use of English.
Marguerite Yourcenar Two Lives and a Dream (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1988): Part of my ongoing project to read every word Yourcenar ever wrote, and remind the world that this remarkable woman needs to be rediscovered in a big way (a lá, the new marketing machine for Clarice Lispector). Truly humbling to be in the presence of such a brilliant and creative mind.
I have been reading Listening Publics by Kate Lacey (Polity, 2013), and am deeply regretting not having read it before turning in my own latest to Oxford University Press, Affective Publics: Sentiment and the New Political. It is a beautifully written and engaging book that reviews what form practices of listening took on in the past, and thus, makes us all reconsider what practices of listening mean for contemporary political cultures. I could not recommend more highly, especially to those interested in how newer media platforms can help revive tired civic habits of the past.
I also recently read and thoroughly enjoyed How Voters Feel by Stephen Coleman (Cambridge University Press, 2014), on what it means to feel like, rather than act like or think like a democratic citizen. Coleman examines how narratives, dreams, and memories inform performances of voting or non-voting, and what sorts of feelings about democracy and civic engagement these generate for people. The book focuses on what living in a democracy might feel like, rather than require of its citizens, and in so doing, it refocuses attention on the meaning of feelings for political engagement, without divorcing them from the organizing logic of rationality.
The Hybrid Media System: Political and Power (Oxford university Press, 2013) by Andrew Chadwick is another volume I recently finished and highly recommend, especially to those looking for a book to assign in basic courses on mass media (whatever the term may refer to these days), media systems, mass communication and new media, and all those courses that represent the core of our field. Having read this, many textbooks feel dated to me now. This volume describes the organization, logic, and function of contemporary media in immediate and engaging terms. It is a must read for all students of media, and interested parties in general.
Finally, I am trying to muster the energy to read Thomas Piketty’s much discussed Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Belknap Press, 2014). I have gone through the first chapter and had to ask myself whether all those who bought and pushed it to the top of best seller lists actually finished reading it. It is a very smart book, and one that had to be written, I am just not sure yet that the same issues have not been presented, in a slightly different contexts, by other social scientists already. I look forward to reading more, and more on this when I am done doing so. Happy reading!
Who has time to read? My world is one of continuous partial attention. Complicating matters is that I can no longer read anything without simultaneously writing something. Let’s call it riff-reading.
The best writing does absolutely nothing for me in the way of story, plot, character, authenticity, voice, setting or conventional meaning-making i.e. the predictable middle-brow or preprogrammed academic literary and theoretical styles that easily meet expectations. Rather, it immediately stimulates my muscle memory in a way my neurons never saw coming. Once the neurons are triggered and I am starting to go out of control, I too find myself writing-while-reading in the margins of my mind, iPhone, notepad, etc. What this means is that the best writing, the writing I come back to, is writing that awakens the writer-in-me, even if that writer is really anybody but me.
Fortunately, I often spend my summers in Portland, living and writing in my loft a mere six blocks away from Powell’s, arguably the best bookstore in America. My nightly visits to Powell’s open me up to books I might never have heard of were I to depend solely on the Internet or, worse, academic culture, to tell me what’s hot and what’s not. Which is why my summer reading is always an eclectic mix of the unexpected. This year is no different. These are the first books I have unearthed from the endless shelves that I immerse myself in:
Blake ButlerThree Hundred Million (Harper Perennial, 2014): Alongside Ben Marcus, Blake Butler has rapidly become one of my favorite authors of recent years. His last two forays, There Is No Year (Harper Perennial, 2011) and Sky Saw (Tyrant Books, 2012) were terrifying in scope and ambition. They were essentially abstractions, vivid, nightmarish images sown together with bloody twine to form shimmering, apocalyptic narratives. Three Hundred Million sounds like something of a departure for Butler. For one thing, judging by pre-publication blurbs, it appears as though he has veered into a more straight-forward approach (if that can ever be said of Butler!) – for the first time in his oeuvre he names characters – a psychopath called Gretch Gravey and a burnt-out cop called E.N. Flood. That fact alone suggests a more accessible narrative. But knowing Butler that’s a bit like describing Burroughs’ Cities of the Red Night as a straight forward detective novel. I expect the unexpected.
David Cronenberg Consumed (Scribner, 2014): What’s not to be intrigued? He is one of the world’s most literary contemporary filmmakers, consuming and then exhuming, as it were, the works of the likes of Burroughs, Ballard and DeLillo for source material. As this is a first novel it will be intriguing to see if Cronenberg’s visual panache can be matched in the written word, but the themes are certainly suitably Cronenbergian: disease, depravity and conspiracy. Evidently the story of two journalists who become involved in the complexities surrounding a French philosopher’s death – it may be Umberto Eco on acid?
William GibsonThe Peripheral(Putnam, 2014): It’s rather impossible to know which direction Gibson is going to go in with this. Where Thomas Pynchon’s last outing, Bleeding Edge (Penguin, 2013), sounded like a precursor to some of Gibson’s recent speculations, this one is evidently back to the “far future” – which, with Gibson, probably means next year. The pre-pub blurb is certainly intriguing complete with veteran’s benefits for neural damage suffered from implants during time in an “elite Haptic Recon force,” Beta-testing a new game, where “Little bug-like things turn up,” but “it might also be murder.” Gibson, to date, has never failed to supply a decent narrative drive, although perhaps not as visionary as his first novel, he has an uncanny knack for picking themes that seem strangely relevant to our near-future(s).
Okwui Enwezor, Homi K. Bhabha, and Hilton Als Matthew Barney: River of Fundament (Skira Rizzoli, 2014): Whilst the other books listed here must go down as pleasure, this one is work-related as part of doctorial research where Harold Bloom’s American Religion meets Barney’s art, Ben Marcus’ novels and moments of David Lynch. Yeah, weird. But River of Fundament is an extraordinary film/artwork which I strongly recommend for those who do not have allergies to the extreme. Inspired in part by Norman Mailer’s Egyptian novel Ancient Evenings, his infamous classic that chronicled the passage of a narrator through the stations of death and reincarnation (here reinterpreted as Mailer’s own aspirations to be the Great American Novelist). Barney has outdone the Cremaster Cycle on many levels. If one likes the films of Lynch, Cronenberg, and the more extreme moments of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, River of Fundament is a must-see. Hopefully the main text by Okwui Enwezor will provide an insight into a baffling but brilliant project.
Michael Findley, Daniel Nielson, and Jason Sharman Global Shell Games: Experiments in Transnational Relations, Crime, and Terrorism (Cambridge University Press, 2014): The authors use an innovative experimental research design to investigate over 3,800 corporate service providers in 181 countries that establish anonymous shell corporations. These untraceable corporations are used for money laundering, covert financing, and offshore tax havens. One of the major findings is that corporate service providers located in major Western countries including the United States are more likely to flout international regulations of the World Bank and the Financial Action Task Force. The authors propose Transnational Experimental Relations as a new sub-discipline of international relations to conduct further research using field experiments.
Gordon Clark, Adam Dixon, and Ashby Monk Sovereign Wealth Funds: Legitimacy, Governance, and Global Power (Princeton University Press, 2013): In 2010 as the global financial crisis unfolded a new type of funds management emerged as a dominant force in international markets and financial media coverage: sovereign wealth funds. This rigorous study examines what sovereign wealth funds are, how they function in transnational economies, and includes case studies from Australia, Norway, Singapore, China, and the Gulf States. A model of how good academic research can dispel media hype cycles.
Thomas Piketty Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Belknap Press, 2014): Piketty’s multi-year research program is one of the sources for multi-country data on income inequality. This book became a bestseller in 2014; crossed into the financial and popular media; and ignited a backlash against Piketty’s data collection and policy suggestions. Rather than Karl Marx, Piketty’s research continues a tradition on social elites pioneered by Gaetano Mosca, Vilfredo Pareto, and most recently, Jeffrey A. Winters. The backlash against Piketty in part reflects an elite strategy of ‘wealth defense’ and civil oligarchical trends in the United States (Winters).
David Weil The Fissured Workplace: Why Work Became So Bad for So Many and What Can Be Done To Improve It (Harvard University Press, 2014): Boston University professor Weil is now the Obama Administration’s first Wage and Hour Administrator. This confronting book on labor economics contrasts the asset and private equity style of management with the lives of independent contractors and outsourcing firms. Many of the trends that Weil identifies already apply to universities, and will continue to unfold over the next decade.
Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies (W.W. Norton & Co., 2014): Brynjolfsson and McAfee continue a debate on technology shaped by Norbert Wiener (The Human Use of Human Beings) and Alvin Toffler (Future Shock). This book catalogues recent growth in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and related fields, and how these innovations might change workplaces in the next two decades. Brynjolfsson and McAfee contend that recent innovations will lead to societal transformations (Toffler), yet they may also create a new economic underclass (Wiener; Piketty; and Weil). A primer to critically interrogate the preferred futures of Bangalore and Silicon Valley.
Riccardo Rebonato and Alexander Denev Portfolio Management Under Stress: A Bayesian-Net Approach to Coherent Asset Allocation (Cambridge University Press, 2014): Modern Portfolio Theory faced critique after the 2007-09 global financial crisis. Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Nouriel Roubini emerged as superstar critics. This book develops a post-MPT approach to asset allocation and portfolio management that uses Bayesian nets: probabilistic models of belief networks. Rebonato and Denev’s insights and formal models articulate ways to deal with extreme events and risk management that has resonances with the therapeutic literature on post-traumatic growth and resilience.
Henrique Andrade, Bugra Gedik, and Deepak Turaga Fundamentals of Stream Processing: Application, Design, Systems and Analytics (Cambridge University Press, 2014): A decade ago business management literature hypothesized the emergence of real-time companies. SAP’s enterprise resource planning platform was one way. Tibco and Streambase’s complex event processing engines are another way. This book provides a conceptual and methodological overview of stream processing that deals with high-volume, real-time data streams – with sections on system architecture, development, analytics, and case studies. Stream processing is an example of Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s transformative technologies, and that benefit Piketty’s economic elites. For one application in financial services, see Yacine Ait-Sahalia and Jean Jacod’s High-Frequency Econometrics (Princeton University Press, 2014).
Jacob Shapiro The Terrorist’s Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organizations (Princeton University Press, 2013): During the Bush Administration’s so-called Global War on Terror the study of terrorist organizations was a ‘hot topic’ in security studies. This book is one of the best post-GWoT studies to combine agency theory with a careful study of internal documents from terrorist organizations. Shapiro identifies a dilemma: leadership need for control versus the need to be clandestine. His findings can also be read as a specialized form of Clayton M. Christensen’s influential Disruptive Innovation Theory, as applied to terrorist organizations.
Don Webb Through Dark Angles (Hippocampus Press, 2014): H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) influenced contemporary horror and weird fiction, films, and subcultures. This book collects the Lovecraftian-influenced short stories of Austin, Texas writer Don Webb. The short stories hint at Webb’s on-going practice-based research into the anthropology, linguistics, and sociology of operative magic (the Egyptian heka) as a liminal methodology to achieve, embody, and to cultivate Desire.
James H. Austin Meditating Selflessly: Practical Neural Zen (MIT Press, 2011): Over the past decade Austin has published a series of books on Zen and contemporary neuroscience. This book summarizes Austin’s research program, and offers guidance for mindfulness meditation practice. Rather than beliefs or doctrines Austin advises: “what you may glimpse are some of your brain’s innate resources” (p. xxiii). Austin’s latest book Zen-Brain Horizons: Towards a Living Zen (MIT Press, 2014) continues his personal research journey.
Lance Strate Amazing Ourselves to Death: Neil Postman’s Brave New World Revisited (Peter Lang, 2014): It’s high time that Neil Postman’s ideas were revisited, and, having studied under Postman himself, Lance Strate is the ideal scholar to do it. Media ecology as a perspective is more important now than ever. This is the source and the voice of its views in the 21st century. I’m looking forward to the upgrade.
Eugene Thacker An Ideal for Living (Gobbet Press, 2014) and In the Dust of This Planet [Horror of Philosophy, vol 1] (Zer0 Books, 2011): Eugene Thacker has been quietly building an impressively wide and weird body of work. An Ideal for Living is a deserved re-issue of the anti-novel he was working on during our 2006 interview. In the Dust of This Planet is Book One of his re-imagining of horror, philosophy, and their intersection. Both are worth a look. Or three.
The transition from adolescence to adulthood is rarely an easy one. As we watch Miley Cyrus shed her youth in real-time, I am reminded of a young Drew Barrymore, coming out of rehab for the first time at age 13. The movies Spring Breakers and The Bling Ring represent the grown-up debuts of beloved childhood Hollywood princesses, Selena Gomez and Emma Watson respectively. The two films are also similar for their adult themes and media commentary. No one would say that a refusal to grow up is endearing, but resistance is fertile. There’s nothing quite as cool as youthful nihilism — especially when wielded by young women. Live fast, die young: Bad girls do it well.
The similarities here remind me of when in 2007 the Coen Brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson both did adaptations—both camps tend to write their own scripts—of stories set in West Texas. No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood are companion pieces in the same way that Spring Breakers and The Bling Ring are, but here the ladies are the ones with the guns.
Spring Breakers‘ heist scene might be the best few minutes of cinema I’ve seen in years. Brit (Ashley Benson) and Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) rob the Chicken Shack restaurant with a hammer and a squirt gun while Cotty (Rachel Korine) circles the building in the getaway car with the camera (and us) riding shotgun. Our limited vantage point gives the scene an added tension because though we are at a distance, it feels far from safe. Much like the security camera footage of Columbine and Chronicle, and the camera-as-character of Chronicle and Cloverfield, we receive a crippled information flow while experiencing total exposure. Their mantra: “Just pretend it’s a fucking video game. Act like you’re in a movie or something.”
Alien (James Franco) arrives as the girls’ douche ex machina, an entity somewhere between True Romance‘s Drexl Spivey (1993), Kevin Federline, and Riff Raff, the latter of whom is supposedly suing over the similarities. He bails them out of jail after a party gone astray and takes them home to his arsenal. What could possibly go wrong?
Selena Gomez does the least behaving badly, but her role as Faith is still a long way from Alex Russo or Beezus. As she tells her grandmother over the phone,
I think we found ourselves here. We finally got to see some other parts of the world. We saw some beautiful things here. Things we’ll never forget. We got to let loose. God, I can’t believe how many new friends we made. Friends from all over the place. I mean everyone was so sweet here. So warm and friendly. I know we made friends that will last us a lifetime. We met people who are just like us. People the same as us. Everyone was just trying to find themselves. It was way more than just having a good time. We see things different now. More colors, more love, more understanding… I know we have to go back to school, but we’ll always remember this trip. Something so amazing, magical. Something so beautiful. Feels as if the world is perfect. Like it’s never gonna end.
Spring break is heavy, y’all. “I grew up in Nashville, but I was a skater, so I was skateboarding during spring break,” writer/director Harmony Korine told Interview. “Everyone I knew would go to Daytona Beach and the Redneck Riviera and just fuck and get drunk — you know, as a rite of passage. I never went. I guess this is my way of going.” Ultimately the movie illustrates Douglas Adams’ dictum that the problem with a party that never ends is that ideas that only seem good at parties continue to seem like good ideas.
Speaking of bad ideas, Sophia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, which is based on a real group of fame-obsessed teenagers, is full of them. Not since Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen (2003; which features Spring Breakers‘ Hudgens) has a group of teens been so overtaken by expensive clothes, handbags, and bad behavior. This crew of underage criminals uses internet maps and celebrity news to find out where their targets (e.g., Paris Hilton, Audrina Partridge, Megan Fox, Orlando Bloom, et al.) live and when they will be out of town. Once caught, they seem more concerned with what their famous victims think than with the charges brought against them [trailer runtime: 1:46]:
It would be remiss of me not to note that two of my favorite composers, Cliff Martinez and Brian Reitzell respectively, put the music together for these movies. The mood of Spring Breakers is mostly set by Martinez in collaboration with Skrillex, Gucci Mane (who’s also in the movie), and Waka Focka Flame, among others. The Bling Ring features a mix of Hip-hop, Krautrock, and electronic pop that reads more eclectic than it actually sounds: Sleigh Bells, Kanye West, CAN, M.I.A., Azeailia Banks, Klaus Schultze, Frank Ocean, and so on. Discounting the importance of music in creating the pressure that permeates these films would be an oversight.
Though these films are both cautionary tails of an extreme nature, they prove that caution isn’t cool. Youth might be wasted on the young, but our heroes don’t concern themselves with consequences.
Once declaring that an individual is a “montage of loosely assembled parts,” and furthermore that when “you are on the phone or on the air you have no body” (p. xxix), Marshall McLuhan (1962) dismembered the body. Our media might be extensions of ourselves, but they’re also prosthetics, amputating parts as they extend them, turning us into cyborgs. If we are and always have been cyborgs (Clark, 2003), then where does the body end and the media begin?
Judith Butler (1990) reassembles the body as “culturally intelligible” (p. 167). That is, as one that is recognized by the members of its society, what Sandy Stone (2001) calls the “legible body” (p. 195). On the phone, on the air, or online, you are “read” as a member. Stone also postulates the “illegible body” that exists “quantumlike in multiple states” (p. 196): “Their social system includes other people, quasi people or delegated agencies that represent specific individuals, and quasi agents that represent ‘intelligent’ machines, clusters of people, or both” (p. 196). Bringing Bulter, N. Katherine Hayles, and Donna Haraway together, Arthur Kroker’s Body Drift: Butler, Hayles, Haraway (University of Minnesota Press, 2012) tackles these theorists and their theories in turn. His “body drift” is not just the fragmentation of the body into different codes and constructs, as Stone does (e.g., gendered, sexualized, augmented, virtual, etc.), but also the fact that concerns about the body haven’t been marginalized by technological evolution as largely predicted. Just as telecommuting de-emphasizes place (i.e., we can work from anywhere) as it reemphasizes it (i.e., where we are matters more), not having a body or having a technologically mediated one now matters in a different way. Under the themes of contingency, complexity, and hybridity, Kroker provides an introduction to and synthesis of the thought of three major feminist critics and what it means for the body to drift.
Even from a steadfastly feminist stance, we tend to focus on the narratives and discourses surrounding issues of the body more so than their material systems and conditions (Rotman, 2008). The Others lurk in the structures of modernity, and as Haraway (1990) puts it, “The cyborg is a kind of disassembled and reassembled, postmodern collective and personal self” (p. 163): Cyborgs are “simultaneously entities and metaphors, living beings, and narrative constructions” (Hayles, 1999, p. 114). In such a meddled milieu, the control of these analogies and their boundaries is where the power lies.
Another term for the feminist in Haraway is the posthuman (Howell, 1995), and Rosi Braidotti pushes the analogies and boundaries of the body past postmodernity in her latest book, The Posthuman (Polity, 2013). Hayles (1999) defines the posthuman using the externalization of our knowledge, writing, “When information loses its body, equating humans and computers is especially easy…” (p. 2). Cybernetics defined humans as “information-processing systems whose boundaries are determined by the flow of information” (p. 113). Braidotti pays special attention to these flows, building from three areas of thought: moral philosophy, science and technology, and anti-humanist philosophies of subjectivity. Globalized network culture decentralizes the humanist subject’s stability in space and time. The upending of anthropocentrism upsets the hierarchy of the species and the technologically mediated subject problematizes body normativity. All of which Braidotti employs toward a “move forward into multiple posthuman futures” (p. 150). She continues:
We need an active effort to reinvent the academic field of the Humanities in a new global context and to develop an ethical framework worthy of our posthuman times. Affirmation, not nostalgia, is the road to pursue: not the idealization of philosophical meta-discourse, but the more pragmatic task of self-transformation through humble experimentation (p. 150).
Braidotti praises interdisciplinary scholarship within the Humanities (e.g., feminist studies, media studies, environmental Humanities, Digital Humanities, etc.) as an “expression of its riches, not of its crisis” (p. 155), but she calls for more fragmentation, not less, writing that the dis-unity of the Humanities “points to over-abundance, not lack” (p. 156). The posthuman research agenda is not a unified “grand theoretical discourse” (p. 157) but a call for “specific theory” (Lyotard, 1984), one that is “grounded, accountable but also shareable and hence open to generic applications” (p. 157). Braidotti concludes by outlining her methodological golden rules not only as building blocks for posthuman critical theory but also as a way to bridge the Two Cultures via mutual respect. The Posthuman is an important and generative step toward new theories and scholarship and a welcome addition to Braidotti’s already formidable canon.
Moving beyond the body (as we know it) means subverting any extant grand narrative or theory of The Human and any attempt at a new one. It means rejecting the demonization of science and technology. It means embracing the nonlinearity of our posthuman times, the further fragmentation of our selves, and the permeability of our bodily boundaries. Haraway (1990) writes, “It means both building and destroying machines, identities, relationships…” (p. 181). It means rethinking the lines we’ve drawn through the ones we’ve crossed.
Butler, Judith. (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.
Clark, Andy. (2003). Natural Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence. New York: Oxford University Press.
Haraway, Donna J. (1990). Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.
Hayles, N. Katherine. (1999). How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Howell, Linda. (1995). The Cyborg Manifesto Revisited: Issues and Methods for Technocultural Feminism. In Richard Dellamora (Ed.), Postmodern Apocalypse: Theory and Cultural Practice at the End. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 199-218.
Kroker, Arthur. (2012). Body Drift: Butler, Hayles, Haraway. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Lyotard, Jean François. (1984). The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Minneapolis, MN: University of MInnesota Press.
McLuhan, Marshall. (1962). The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Rotman, Brian. (2008). Becoming Beside Ourselves: The Alphabet, Ghosts, and Distributed Human Being. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Stone, Allucquère Rosanne (Sandy). (2001). Will the Real Body Please Stand Up? In David Trend (Ed.), Reading Digital Culture. Malden, MA: Blackwell, pp. 185-198.
It’s time once again for the annual Summer Reading List. This is my tenth year of compiling reading recommendations from fellow scholars, musicians, artists, and other bookish friends. This year that includes regulars like Howard Rheingold, Douglas Rushkoff, Dave Allen, Paul Saffo, Zizi Papacharissi, Steven Shaviro, Ashley Crawford, McKenzie Wark, Alex Burns, Peter Lunenfeld, Brian Tunney, and myself, as well as newcomers Nick Harkaway, Lance Strate, Mark Amerika, Tricia Wang, Dominic Pettman, Jussi Parikka, Eduardo Navas, David Preston, and Barry Brummett. There’s a wide-ranging, far-reaching pile of books below to be sure. My own list has doubled since I read through all of these.
I’m stoked on publishers I love and who have been very supportive being in the list multiple times. Among them are Red Lemonade, HiLo Books, Zer0 Books, The MIT Press, and The University of Minnesota Press. Many thanks to everyone who provides us reading material and everyone who contributed to the list — this time and for the past ten years. I’m just a guy who loves to read and the support is mad appreciated.
Also, it’s worth mentioning that as the shift to e-books gains further adoption, there are insights from both sides of the new digital divide in the following list. As always, the book links on this page will lead you to Powell’s Books, the best bookstore on the planet. Read on for various thoughts on many current and classic reads.
George Dyson Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe (Pantheon, 2012): It is a little slow and overly detailed at the beginning but becomes extremely rich when it gets to Johnny von Neumann, a man who is as little known as he was important, and the end is a truly grand and perhaps frightening broad vision of the state and future of digital life.
I’ll be kicking off with Evening in the Palace of Reason (Harper Perennial, 2006), James Gaines’ extraordinary history of J S Bach’s encounters with Frederick the Great and what they mean. It’s the clash between two radically different perceptions of the world. The book is an amazing lens through which to understand a fragment of history and various threads which run through to the present day. Plus it’s crackingly dramatic.
Then there’s Ned Beauman’s Boxer Beetle: A Novel (Bloomsbury, 2011), which everyone raved about a while ago but I never got to. I’ve just been sent his new book, The Teleportation Accident, which is superb. Boxer Beetle sounds like something Borges might have written if he’d been a drunken Irish libertine. It is apparently a crazed romp featuring riots, sex, murder, Darwinism, and invented languages. Now you know as much as I do.
William Gibson‘s Distrust That Particular Flavor (Putnam Adult, 2011) has been burning a hole in my pocket for a month. I’ve dipped into it, and I already know it’s fascinating, but I haven’t really had time to sit down with it and get to know it. The early sections tell me that we have different ways of working and thinking about writing, but that somehow the differences are complementary rather than oppositional, and I just feel he broadens my mind.
I have an advanced reading copy of Tom Pollock’s The City’s Son (Flux, 2012). Tom has turned out something which may end up as the next His Dark Materials. It’s not always easy reading work by people you like, but having read the first couple of chapters I’m feeling pretty confident that he won’t let me down.
I don’t have a lot of reading time over the summer. Actually, less than I normally do. But I plan to read Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland, whatever draft of Cintra Wilson’s upcoming masterwork she’ll let me look at, Howard Rheingold’s new book Net Smart: How to Thrive Online (MIT Press, 2012), and a radium-age sci- fi novel by Edward Shanks called The People of the Ruins that HiLo Books will be releasing this year, and that I hope to blurb. I’m also finally learning Python from a big O’Reilly book by Mark Lutz appropriately titled Learning Python that Mark Pesce bought me for my 50th birthday. Never too late to learn a new programming language!
I have spent the last few months teaching in Paris, so my summer reading list has a Gallic flavor this year. Francoise Mallet-Joris’ The Illusionist (Cleis Press, 2006) does not get the attention that her near-namesake Francoise Sagan gets for her sexually precocious bon-bons of the same era, but it seems to be more evocative, gender-blurring, and intriguing. Irina Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise (Vintage, 2007) renders the Nazi occupation of France with an absolutely singular and unsentimental voice (and the letters from her husband, included in the appendix, desperately soliciting the authorities for information of her whereabouts and condition are among the most wrenching things I’ve ever read). Also, I’m told Elizabeth Bowen’s A House in Paris (Anchor, 2002) is an over-looked classic of English modernist literature, and stands as one of the most subtle melodramas ever written; so that’s definitely on the list. Then, as a palate-cleansing chaser, I will read part three of Henri de Montherlant’s amusingly astringent (and let’s face it, misogynist) series of books collected as The Girls (Picador, 1987).
Finally, I hope to find the time to read John Crowley’s eccentrically fantastical tale Little, Big (William Morrow, 2006), since I’m intrigued by Harold Bloom’s blurb: “A neglected masterpiece. The closest achievement we have to the Alice stories of Lewis Carroll.” Seems like perfect upstate New York hammock reading . . . if I am lucky enough to find such a thing.
Every now and then I will read something because I need to read it. The book, journal or article will usually have some relation to my research which will then feed into my own writing and art projects. The vast majority of these sources come from writers who I have no personal connection to but who I am very grateful for having uncovered some data points that I can sample from and remix into my own creations.
But then there are other works that are made by artists, writers, theorists, and others whom I personally know, have met in the best of circumstances, or have simply met online while conducting my daily social media rituals.
It’s these latter works that I generally save for summer reading. This summer I have truly lucked out as there are quite a few titles that I eagerly anticipate digging into while simultaneously finishing my Museum of Glitch Aesthetics project. As you will soon see, even the titles of the books are enough to warrant a closer inspection of the writing therein:
I have just finished two books. Novels that have enthralled me like no others in quite some time. Both debuts from two gifted writers – one Irish one French. City of Bohaneby Kevin Barry (Greywolf Press, 2012) and HHhH from Laurent Binet (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012) are so startlingly original it seems unfair to compare them to other literary endeavors, yet in literature as in digital actually, the new new thing is rarely completely new.
Page 5, City of Bohane:
‘Did he have it coming, Jen?’
‘Don’t they always, Cusacks?’
Logan shaped his lips thinly in agreement.
‘The Cusacks have always been crooked, girl.’
Jenni was seventeen that year but wise beyond it. Careful she was, and a saucy little ticket in her lowriders and wedge heels, her streaked hair pineappled in a high bun. She took the butt of a stogie from the tit pocket of her white vinyl zip-up, and lit it.
‘Get enough on me plate now ‘cross the footbridge, Mr H.’
‘I know that.’
‘Cusacks gonna sulk up a welt o’ vengeance by ‘n’ by and if yer asking me, like? A rake o’ them tossers bullin’ down off the Rises is the las’ thing Smoketown need.’
‘Cusacks are always great for the old talk, Jenni.’
‘More ‘n talks what I gots a fear on, H. Is said they gots three flatblocks marked Cusacks ‘bove on the Rises this las’ while an’ that’s three flatblocks fulla headjobs with a grá on ‘em for rowin’, y’check me?’
‘All too well Jenni.’
That conversation takes place 50 years in the future in a city in the Southwest of Ireland. Things have not improved economically. Being Irish, Barry clearly has an ear for the cadence and lilt of Ireland’s working class phrasing and further deconstructs it as if everything now, here in the future is only spoken, where words are no longer pressed to paper. The palpable violence that ghost-shades the entire book reminds me of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962).
Page 1, A Clockwork Orange:
‘What’s it going to be then, eh?’
There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry. The Korova Milkbar was a milk-plus mesto, and you may, O my brothers, have forgotten what these mestos were like, things changing so skorry these days and everybody very quick to forget, newspapers not being read much neither.
And as I consider the language and grammar deconstructions of both those chapters, the upending of rules as if rules in literature ever mattered, I’m reminded of Russell Hoban’s classic post-apocalypse novel, Riddley Walker(Indiana University Press, 1998), a telling of history by the survivors that couldn’t be written – it was an oral history.
Hoban went beyond Burgess and Barry by taking the grammar deconstruction to its obvious place in a post-apocalyptic world, a place where there were no longer written words. Language then became free of grammatical constraint, where punctuation in oral history was not mandatory- it was personal. The speaker or narrator decided whether to pause or exclaim for effect, or not..
Page 1, Riddley Walker:
On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen. He dint make the groun shake nor nothing like that when he come on to my spear he wernt all that big plus he lookit poorly. He done the reqwyert he ternt and stood and clattert his teef and made his rush and ther we wer then. Him on 1 end of the spear kicking his life out and me on the other end watching him dy. I said, ‘Your tern now my tern later.’ The other spears gon in then and he wer dead and the steam coming up off him in the rain and we all yelt, ‘Offert!’
In all three of these books the central characters are “telling” not writing. The only narrative they’re left with is oral history.
In future the digital version of this will be known as Twitter.
In HHhH (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012), Laurent Betin goes back into history to the period in Nazi Germany just prior to World War 2. It is, ostensibly, a historical novel, one that follows the rise through the ranks of the SS and SA, of the cruel Nazi, Rienhard Heydrich, who became too well known as the sinister figure “the Butcher of Prague.”
Yet is it? Heydrich did exist and he did commit atrocities across Europe during the war, but Betin is not satisfied with the genre. He wrestles openly in the book with his fear of memory polluting his attempts, as Brett Easton Ellis puts it, at “neutral, journalistic honesty.” Or as Wells Tower says “HHhH is an astonishing book – absorbing, moving, for the agony and acuity with which its author engages the problem of making literary art from unbearable historical fact.”
Here’s an example. Betin is describing how fighters had slipped out of Czechoslovakia and into France where they joined with the French army to battle the Germans:
…a few months later it will be practically a whole division and it will fight alongside the French army during the war. I could write quite a lot about the Czechs in the French army: the 11,000 soldiers, made up of 3,000 volunteers and 8,000 expatriate Czech conscripts, along with the brave pilots, trained at Chartres, who will shoot down or help to shoot down more than 130 enemy planes during the Battle of France.. But I’ve said that I don’t want to write a historical handbook. This story is personal. That’s why my visions sometimes get mixed up with known facts. It’s just how it is.
Actually, no: that’s not how it is. That would be too simple. Rereading one of the books that make up the foundation of my research – a collection of witness accounts assembled by a Czech historian, Miraslav Ivanov, under the title The Attack on Heydrich – I become aware to my horror, of the mistakes I’ve made concerning Gabcik.
Remember this a novel about a true story. We know from history much of the story. Yet does the book by Miraslav Ivanov mentioned above even exist? Does/did Ivanov?
As David Lodge points out “Binet has given a new dimension to the nonfiction novel by weaving his writerly anxieties about the genre into the narrative, but his story is no less compelling for that…”
It is truly a work of art. And I believe that now I’ve read it, it deserves its place on my bookshelf as a future classic, where someone else can pick it up and consider its heft, both literally and figuratively.
Something that an e-reader cannot provide.
Recently I bought two books by Hans Keilson, of which Comedy in a Minor Key: A Novel (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011) is the first that I have read. Keilson was born in Berlin in 1909 and during World War II he joined the Dutch resistance. It too is a short novel and is the story of a young Dutch couple who during the war take in and hide a Jew they know as Nico, then when he dies of pneumonia they must dispose of his body. It was written in 1947, so just after the war ended, and one gets the sense when reading it, that no it is semi-autobiographical.
As I note above that book was written in 1947 and recently I’ve been picking up books from the past rather than the present: Essays In Disguise (Knopf, 1990) by Wifrid Sheed (Read – amazing!), In the Next Galaxy (Cooper Canyon Press, 2004) by Ruth Stone (Poetry) (Reading now), and X20: A Novel of (not) Smoking (Harper Perennial, 1999) by Richard Beard (Up next).
To segue to fiction, I’ll be reading Thomas Malone’s Watergate: A Novel (Pantheon, 2012), because the ‘70s still fascinate, J.G. Ballard’s Kingdom Come (Liverlight, 2012), because even late Ballard is better than no Ballard, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 (Orbit, 2012), because people who imagine interesting futures are more necessary than ever. Last year, I claimed I’d start and finish David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (Back Bay Books, 2006) over the summer. This year, I’ll just claim to finish it. But you never know…
This summer I am reading material that I started earlier in the year. I tend to read various books at the same time.
In terms of fiction, I am finishing Kicking, a novel by Leslie Dick (City Lights, 2001). I ran into a copy of this book quite a few years ago at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, but never got around to it. Leslie Dick is a former teacher of mine from Cal Arts who often lectured on psychoanalysis. She clearly makes use of her knowledge of Freud in this novel for key moments. The novel takes place in the seventies between New York and London. It is a third person narrative of the coming of age of Connie, a middle class kid who finds herself in a love triangle that moves between the two cities. It is interesting to wonder how some of the content in the novel may be inspired by Dick’s personal experiences in the respective cities. It’s a good read, though at times it feels a bit too “bourgeois” in the struggle the hip kids are having with the burden to live with no clear direction, and indulging occasionally in drugs.
I am also finishing The Difference Engine (Bantam Spectra, 1991), a joint collaboration of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. I love used book shops, and one of my favorites is in San Diego’s 5th street and University, where they have a large collection of sci-fi. In one of my last stays in San Diego, I bought the book and did not get to read it until recently. I’m almost done with it. It’s really great to see how the styles of the two sci-fi writers blend into one. It’s a story of an alternate reality, a what-if scenario, in which the United States did not shape out to be as it is now: Texas is independent, The Confederate States have an association, and the territory on the North-West is unclaimed. In this scenario England became a major global power in part because Charles Babbage got to actually develop his difference engine, thus starting the informational revolution much earlier. It’s a bit tedious at times, but very good to read. Well researched too.
I am also reading Capote: A Biography (Simon & Schuster, 1988) by Gerald Clarke. The film Capote is actually based on this biography. I decided to read it after I saw the film years ago. But first I read other works by Truman Capote, including Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Signet, 1959) and In Cold Blood (Random House, 1966). Reading Capote’s biography is fascinating. It’s actually written like a novel. Gerald Clarke is a very good researcher. Admittedly, this book finds itself at the crux of my research because in part I read literature and related creative material to develop my own art projects. I guess this book is my transition to work-related reading.
I often cite Adorno in my own research, but have to admit that one must spend extreme in-depth time with his writing to realize that he arguably was the ultimate optimist about the quality of life. The books are not easy reads if one is impatient, but that is the point of his writing: One must slow down to understand things in life. Reading these books leads me to hope that one day academics who try to sound hip will not be so dismissive during conferences about Adorno’s misunderstood position on the possibilities of culture.
This year I started a new job as creative director at Timber Press. Among other things, this opportunity has lit the fire under a long-smoldering interest in electronic publishing: what it is, how it works, what the future holds. I’ve been spending a lot of time comparing e-book “design” and e-reader function, reading about new ways to present words and pictures, and trying to avoid saying “content” too often.
So far the thing I like the most is reading magazines and newspapers, particularly the New Yorker and the New York Times, on a tablet like the Kindle Fire or iPad. I’ve subscribed to the New Yorker for as long as I can remember, and my grandmother, who got me hooked on it, was a subscriber since the 1930s. And now, after a stretch of mostly collecting New Yorkers by my bedside rather than reading them, I have access to all of the magazines on a little device that I can mostly carry wherever I want to go. So I’m catching up, for the first time in a long time. And I love the way the magazine reads on these medium-sized screens. The apps for the Fire and the iPad are both good; the iPad is better, but both offer very good typography and, occasionally, wonderful extras, like excerpts from books or bonus photos.
I like how magazines are using tablet versions to expand the reach of their graphic design. For example, WIRED has some beautiful and striking animated photo illustrations in their recent issues, and they’ve taken full advantage of the tablet environment for things like gear reviews, where flipping through a series of reviews of headphones, for example, is an interesting and interactive experience. They’re moving past skeuomorphism, breaking free of the page, and making publishing work in the tablet space.
Then there are magazines like Katachi, which is as much a demonstration of the possibilities of digital-publishing as it is a magazine. While the copy and editing is somewhat vapid or amateurish, the design and construction is fun to play with, and makes me imagine incredibly cool digital versions of some of the craft, design, and how-to books that we produce at work.
It’ll be a long while before e-books get to be that cool, though. In the few months that I’ve had this position, I’ve watched as my fabulous ideas about e-publishing are deflated by simple facts: e-books need to be marketed with other e-books, not as apps or special publications (or they won’t sell); there’s virtually no money in selling them (yet), so we can’t put any money into their development, really; creating some kind of beautifully functioning app is way, way, way out of our budget; and yes, it really is like www.1994.com, where the reader gets to “choose the font” — and a sack of other things that, from this graying book designer’s perspective, are just wrong about e-books.
As I mentioned, I like the tablets because of their access to periodicals, which seems like one of the highest purposes of a little minicomputer. I like all the other stuff, like email and Google docs (which I’m using to write this), that I can also get on my phone, but that feel much more comfortable on a tablet.
But books? I borrow an e-book from the library, load it on one tablet or another, read a few pages, forget the tablet in the drawer at work, and end up reading the rest of the book on my phone. Until e-readers (and e-books) offer a design or user experience that justifies carrying around the little minicomputer, I have a hard time seeing an advantage over reading on my phone, since most of my reading is done in transit. The disadvantages of reading on one’s phone are compensated, for me, by how much access I have to the device. I can pull it out on a crowded bus without so much as elbowing my neighbor. I can read in the bathroom, at the coffee shop, while walking down the street (but not crossing! i swear!), even while waiting for coffee or, um, whatever else one waits for.
Maile Meloy, everything she’s written — I got on a Meloy kick earlier this year. Her Young Adult novel The Apothecary (Putnam Juvenile, 2011) was especially enjoyable, as was her book of short stories, Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It (Riverhead, 2010).
Some books I’m looking forward to reading this summer, in whatever form ends up being the most convenient or pleasant:
This is a list of what I am reading, what I want to read and what I hope to read — these three do not always meet, but one of the best things about summer (and other non-teaching time) is that one can plan. Planning is part of the fun.
Bernhard Siegert Passage des Digitalen (Brinkman U. Bose, 2003): Siegert is perhaps the most interesting of the current German media theorists, and one of the key people behind the concept of “cultural technique.” Passage des Digitalen is a massive work of cultural history, media theory and insight into a sort of a media archaeology of digital culture. This is approached through its “sign practices”; the visual, textual, spatial and design arrangements which articulate the longer history of media as cultural technique. Siegert has fascination with such non-obvious “media” objects, or design, as water/the ocean (relates also to information theory). He is one of the “culprits” in the past 20-30 years of media theory expanding to the fields of historians, linguists and other humanities – much before talk of “digital humanities” tried to grab the field. Ok, I am cheating a bit as I just finished reading this one, but I had to include it as it deserves an immediate reread!
A lot of the stuff on my to be read list are funnily enough about diagrams, lines and design – but part of media and cultural theory. A good example is the just published Gary Genosko book Remodelling Communication (University of Toronto Press, 2012) that I am reading now. Besides being an expert on Guattari, Genosko is also a communication and media philosopher and in this book his background as a meticulous and focused writer on communications theory comes clearest. He is able to find refreshing ideas from classical theories of communication such as Shannon and Weaver, as well as develop his Guattarian-influenced ideas of transmission as transformation. As such, there is a curious link to Siegert’s approach; Genosko’s focus on models of communication could be seen to emphasize this visual, diagrammatic side to how we think the most abstract events of communication in the age of technical media. Of course, Genosko is not so much a German media theorist than someone who is keen to elaborate the mixed semiotics (Guattari) of network communications environments. Hence, no wonder that he brings back old things, like Jakobson’s phatic aspect of communications, but in a fresh way.
Besides German media theory, Guattarian influenced diagrammatics, I will definitely try to read Tim Ingold’s Lines (Routledge, 2007) – finally. In addition, I never have enough time to focus on fiction, but the one that I am going to pick up any day now is Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House (Pyr, 2011). What pushed me to it was a tip from Nick Dyer-Witheford. Now, I cannot resist anymore. I’ve been more and more interested in Turkey and Istanbul since my first visit there last November. An articulation of European politics through the nanolevel as significant agent; cannot go wrong with that!
Besides planning possibles, I want to flag what is left out (because they will be published only after summer!): I wish I could add Ken Wark, Rosi Braidotti and Alex Galloway’s to the list, but that is post-summer reading list and another story….
This will be my first summer where I am not doing fieldwork in China, Mexico or some where in the US. So I’ll be soaking up sun in Brooklyn and feeding my heart lots of brain food in the form of a wonderful summer reading list. I haven’t read any books over one year because I’ve been in fieldwork, so there are many books that I want to read. But I managed to narrow down my list into two themes: 1.) ethnographic monographs written by ethnographers and 2.) creative non-fiction written by journalists & writers.
I’ve chosen several ethnographic monographs about how people learn capitalism. Coming from a sociology department, I’ve been heavily trained in Marxist theory. Marxism helps me understand how labor is a commodity and how people become alienated from their own work. But Marxism doesn’t help me understand why consumers want commodities, how financial markets work, and why capitalism continuously mutates. I’ve found three monographs that addresses the questions that Marxist theory doesn’t address.
Douglas E. Foley’s Learning Capitalist Culture: Deep in the Heart of Tejas (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), is a 36-year ethnographic study on how a Mexican-American community negotiates racial tensions with the dominant white population. Foley gives a biting account of how the very attempt for Mexcian youth to learn traditional American values can often reproduce class inequalities and exacerbate racial tensions. I’m really excited to read Foley’s response to Paul Willis’s argument about class reproduction in his seminal book, Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs (Columbia University Press, 1981). I chose Foley’s book because his work is super relevant and will help me process what I’m watching in China – the arrival of rural migrants in cities and their consumption of games, clothes ,and entertainment in malls and online, often times mimicking elites but other times inventing new rituals. Foley’s book also brings up questions around the dominance of cultural markers that Pierre Bourideu brought up in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (Harvard University Press, 1987).
Karen Ho’s Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street (Duke University Press, 2009), is an insider’s ethnographic account of the banking world on Wall Street. Her research reveals that macro market volatility is an ingrained part of corporate culture. Ho’s research provides so much insight into how banker’s ideas about their own self-worth reproduce our current financial system. In their world, volatility and liquidity are part and parcel to an “efficient” market and they believe in this so much that they hold themselves to the same standard. The everyday experience of job insecurity is normalized and valorized under the belief that only the best workers survive. I am quite obsessed with learning about financial history because I don’t think I can understand our world and China without a strong grasp of the ascent of financial capitalism. I am fascinated by why so many middle-class in China invest in the stock market and how they define “transparency.” And for investors outside of China, the question at the end of day is, how do I make money in a market with such little transparency. It’s so interesting to hear them ask this question when I think the US banking system is incredibly un-transparent. I want to understand how bankers define transparency in a profit-making context.
Emil A. Royrvik’s The Allure of Capitalism: An Ethnography of Management and the Global Economy in Crisis, is a view on our financial world from an organizational perspective. Royrvik’s several years of experience inside a transnational corporation reveals how managers create techniques to deal with financial crises, investments, and knowledge workers. I am excited to read Royrvik’s work because he took the time to document and understand modern corporate culture without shying away from political economy. I’m seeing this book as the academic version of The Office. I’ve been spending a lot of time with CEOs and managers in China so this book is super relevant to my fieldwork.
While ethnographers are known for capturing great stories, we aren’t necessarily known for storytelling. Why is that? Just as much as ethnography is an art in itself. so is storytelling. And like any other form of art, one can be trained into an art form and/or have some innate skills.
Ethnographers aren’t taught the methods of storytelling, such as tone, narrative arc, voice, and character development. We are taught the methods of ethnography. Depending on your academic discipline, ethnographers learn to report observations with as little interference from theory as possible or to marry observations to theories. I love ethnographies of both kinds, but sometimes they can be a bit dry.
Thought, it’s a bit unfair to except for ethnographers to become “writers.” Ethnographers have to dedicate so much time to explaining how they got their data and then contextualize it all within research questions, sampling biases, outliers, data interference, methodological decisions, theoretical arguments, and reflections. After addressing all these factors, the creative voice can be dampened. I’ve realized over the last few years that I’m not so sure I want to always write like an academic ethnographer. I don’t find writing ethnography for an academic audience to be very liberating or creative. And that’s ok. I see the value in it and I still want to write up my ethnographic fieldwork, but journal articles don’t accomplish what I believe is one of ethnography’s public projects — to engage a wide audience in universes that they may not have had a chance to witness — writers and journalists do a really good job at doing this. So my second list is comprised of non-fictional books from writers and journalists. (And there must be ethnographers who are great storytellers. Do you know of any? If so, please suggest!)
I’m re-reading Philip P. Pan’s Out of Mao’s Shadows: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China (Simon & Schuster, 2009) because it’s so well-written, insightful, and relevant. He tells us about China told through the lens of several primary characters, which highly compliments of a character driven ethnographic work (the kind that I’ve been doing).
Philip P. Pan also suggested that I read Ted Conover’s Coyotes: A Journey Across Borders With America’s Illegal Migrants (Vintage, 1987). I’m super excited to read this because I research Mexican migration, so it’ll be fascinating to read a journalist’s recounting of migration after all these years of reading academic analysis of migration.
I’m re-reading Anand Giridharadas’s India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation’s Remaking (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2012) and Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia (Penguin, 2003). Giridharadas’s and Chatwin’s book were the only books that I read cover to cover when I was in fieldwork last year. I want to re-read them again to analyze their storytelling techniques. Giridharadas splits his chapters up by themes, like Ambition and Love, and then in each chapter his characters appear, disappear, and re-appear. Chatwin writes in 3-5 pages sections and his sparse style brings his subject of interest to life – a geographic region that is known more for being cold than a goldmine of myths.
I have to sneak in one more book that doesn’t fit on my list at all! My colleague, Jenna Burrell, who I blog with on Ethnography Matters, has just published Invisible Users: Acting With TechnologyYouth in the Internet cafe of Ghana (MIT Press, 2012). There unfortunately is a shortage of ethnographic monographs, much less any that address technology use and Africa, so this is a very important contribution to the literature. I can’t wait to dive into this book over the summer.
And since I’m already sneaking a book in, let me also tell you about three other books. Whenever I read, I always have Manuel de Landa‘s One Thousand Years of Non-Linear History (Zone Books, 2000) within reach. de Landa’s book is my theory bible and every time I feel lost or need inspiration, I return to his book.
I often dream of what I read, so I have to douse myself with plenty of gossip magazines and something more spiritual to prepare myself for non-terrorizing dreams. I’m going to add Brian Eno’s A Year with Swollen Appendices: Brian Eno’s Diary (faber & faber, 1996) to my stack of gossip magazines that I need to catch up on.
And lastly, I love reading in other languages. I particularly love the way Spanish captures feelings — everything just feels softer, deeper, and meltier. I always return to Eduardo Galeano’s El Libro de Los Abrazos (English: Book of Embraces; W. W. Norton & Company, 1992) for inspiration, love, and peace. Galeano abandoned the long and linear historical essays for 3 to 20 lines of poetry to tell the stories of colonialism and everyday life in South America. His style of writing reminds us that writing can be in any shape.
Daniel Suarez Kill Decision (Dutton, 2012): It releases July 19th (I just read the galleys). It is an edge-of-one’s-chair, high-tech thriller that orbits around autonomous weaponized drones. Scarily, real, and plausible. Suarez is the author of New York Times bestsellers Daemon (Signet, 2009) and Freedom™ (Signet, 2011).
Samuel R. Delany Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders (Magnus Books, 2012): Delany’s latest novel — his longest ever (over 800 pages) — skirts the boundaries between pornography, science fiction, and mainstream literary fiction. The book contains lots of explicit gay sex, but it also includes poignant meditations on memory and mortality. Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders tracks the life of its protagonist, Eric Jeffers, from the age of 16 (in the present) right through until he is in his 1990s (in the late 21st century — this is what makes the book science fiction). Nothing dramatic happens in Eric’s life, even as he lives through a period of immense social and technological change. But that is precisely the point: Delany is interested in the textures of lived experience, even at its most humble. He offers us a history of human bodies, and their pleasures and pains. He also offers us a vision of community, as a widening circle of friendships and affiliations, cemented with acts of generosity and kindness. The novel’s sexual extravagance will shock some readers, while rocking the world of others. But in any case, the book offers us a humane vision of personal fulfillment and social justice, in spite of the terrors that surround us today.
Ian Bogost Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing (University of Minnesota Press, 2011): Ian Bogost is best known as a designer, historian, and theoretician of computer games. But in this book, he discusses a wide range of “weird objects,” in order to answer the question of “what it’s like to be a thing.” Bogost encourages us to step beyond our anthropocentrism, and instead seek to comprehend other points of view: not only the points of view of animals, or other living things, but of inanimate objects as well. We do not live in a unified world, or in one that is organized around our own needs and interests; rather, we live amidst a cacaphonous multiplicity of things and processes — or what Bogost calls “unit operations” — each of which has its own features and its own set of possibilities. Bogost approaches this multifarious world as a philosopher, seeking to decipher the inner logic that makes things tick; but also as an engineer, not afraid to get his hands dirty as he explores, and dismantles, the strange contours and inner workings of nonhuman entities.
Adam Kotsko Why We Love Sociopaths (Zer0 Books, 2012): This short book offers us “a guide to late capitalist television.” Adam Kotsko considers why and how so many of the most compelling characters in television of the past decade (from Cartman to Dan Draper to Jack Bauer to Dexter) are sociopaths: figures who seem both to lack an understanding of social norms (they are devoid of human sympathy and any sense of guilt) and yet to be able to manipulate those norms masterfully for their own benefit. These figures seem to encapsulate everything that is horrible about social life in America today; and yet they are also figures of our own sympathetic identification, as if they offered the hope of overcoming the very ills of which they are the symptoms. Kotsko is a superb cultural critic, who deftly analyzes contemporary popular culture, with a keen eye toward his own (and our own) implication within the emotional currents that he describes.
Carl Freedman The Age of Nixon: A Study in Cultural Power (Zer0 Books, 2012): A definitive analysis of the strangely twisted life, personality, and political policies of our 37th President, Richard Milhous Nixon; together with some cogent discussion of why Nixon’s career is still (unfortunately) relevant to us today, 38 years after he toppled from power, and 18 years after his death.
Kieron Gillen Journey into Mystery (Marvel, trade paperbacks & ongoing comics series): The strangest and most interesting series in either the Marvel or the DC universes at the moment has to be Kieron Gillen’s take on the adventures and entanglements of Kid Loki.
Matt Fraction Casanova 3: Avarita (Marvel, 2012): Matt Fraction’s ongoing creator-owned comics series Casanova is a heady metafictional and pulp-fictional brew. I’ve recommended previous volumes in earlier summer reading lists, in one of which I wrote: “Imagine a 1960s spy-movie hero (James Bond, Matt Helm, Derek Flint) as reimagined by some crazed combination of Jorge Luis Borges, Groucho Marx, and Quentin Tarantino.” The same holds for the all-new volume 3, with individual issues on sale now, and available as a graphic novel in late July.
Sergio De La Pava A Naked Singularity: A Novel (University of Chicago Press, 2012): Comparisons to Wallace’s Infinite Jest (Back Bay Books, 2006) are inevitable. At 689 pages it is a sprawling maelstrom of ideas that bullets along with a narrative that has more in common with a Neal Stephenson epic such as Cryptonomicon(Goldmann, 2003). Like Infinite Jest and Don DeLillo’s Underworld (Scribner, 1998), De La Pava’s tale has a sport motif. But Wallace’s tennis fixation, and DeLillo’s powerful baseball setting, pale beside De La Pava’s orgasmic boxing tableaux.
On the surface A Naked Singularity could be described as a legal thriller, but one injected with musings about the nature of Television (always capitalized), recent discoveries in physics and pure courtroom slapstick that recalls Pynchon at his best (and a truly laugh out loud moment of scatological grotesqurie). There are musings on the Human Genome Project and a moment of correspondence between our protagonist, the long suffering Casi, and a death row inmate that is as moving as Wallace at his best. There’s enough paranoia for one to be reminded of a Philip K. Dick story and enough surrealism to keep a David Lynch fan content. It is both preposterous and profound, a philosophical thriller if you will set in a very gritty and very cold New York City haunted by a Golem-like creature that is depicted as a black void which could only be defeated by a naked singularity.
Ben Marcus’ stunning fourth book, The Flame Alphabet (Knopf, 2012). This is a tome that stuns at every turn, not the least because, for Marcus fans, it takes a twist into almost mainstream narrative. To be sure the obsessions remain intact; language, flesh, rubber, hair, wire, but unlike the disturbingly fractured nature of his previous works, Marcus holds the reins on an equally disturbing linear narrative.
It is intriguing how strongly family (especially children) feature in the recent wave of sub-apocalyptic North American fiction. Steve Erickson’s Our Ecstatic Days (Simon & Schuster, 2005), Jack O’Connell’s The Resurrectionist (Algonquin Books, 2008), Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (Vintage, 2007), and Blake Butler’s There is No Year (Harper Perennial, 2011) all feature the shattered remnants of family and, in each, notions of communication are central. The real apocalypse is the one of loss. Not the loss of luxury items and creature comforts but the loss of true communication. Of Language itself.
If there is a resonating tonality to The Flame Alphabet it is the dangerously dulcet tones of the Surrealist master, J.G. Ballard who, like Marcus, masterfully draws one into a truly psychologically hallucinogenic world.
There are dark hints at the Holocaust, tickles of pop culture (the children render their parents into something very much like zombies after “eating” their brains with language). And there are border-line scholarly forays into the history of Hermeneutics. Marcus hasn’t lost his experimentalist edge so much as mutated it, morphed it into something slightly more digestible. But I emphasize slightly; one should adorn a mouth guard and sound-deadening gear before opening this book. And you should read this book in silence, alone. Very alone.
Brian Evenson Immobility (Tor Books, 2012): It’s not hard to imagine Evenson’s latest as a sequel to McCarthy’s The Road set several decades further into the future. The landscape is certainly as blasted, the noxious dust is almost as pervasive. Evenson isn’t as subtle as McCarthy; it is fairly apparent that this was nuclear Armageddon – the flashing light and the bizarre mutations. This is not Evenson’s first foray into the wasteland – in his 2002 Dark Property (Thunder’s Mouth) a woman carries a dying baby across a desert waste, in a devastatingly bleak book that pre-dates The Road by five years.
Evenson shares with Ben Marcus a fascination for both language and the hazards of structured belief systems. Both question the delusions of structured religiosity and they both question notions of self-perception. Immobility and The Flame Alphabet prove that a dark canvas can still illuminate.
Colson Whitehead Zone One: A Novel (Doubleday, 2011): Whitehead is by no means a genre writer. He is what is known as an award-winning “literary” writer with five previous books under his belt, thus a foray into the Zombie zone came as a surprise for many.
But Zone One is far more than just another zombie thriller. The book carries a burden of nostalgia for an older New York City, a far more multi-textured habitat, a place where “the city itself was as bewitched by the past as the little creatures who skittered on its back. The city refused to let them go.” This is not just a post-9/11 response (as Don DeLillo’s Falling Man clearly is), however the residents do suffer from PASD: “Post Apocalyptic Stress Disorder.” It is just as much a knee-jerk reaction to a city embroiled in bureaucracy and a Kafkian labyrinth of miniscule rules, a city that once prided itself on bridled anarchy and smoke-filled bars with dim lights and solid camaraderie. (Ironically, given the life expectancy in Zone One, one of characters chain smokes pilfered cigarettes while being harangued about the habits’ dangers by another.) In what is no doubt a nod to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, what are left of the major corporations ‘sponsor’ the war effort. Looting regulations protect only the corporate brands that actively sponsor the fledgling government’s tactics.
It is, poignantly, the very minions of bureaucracy that suffer the worst fate, those who fill out pointless forms and photocopy meaningless documents ad nauseum. In Whitehead’s world there are different zombies – he never uses the term ‘zombie’ specifically, they are ‘the dead,’ ‘stragglers’ or ‘skels’ – short for skeletons. What Whitehead makes abundantly and chillingly clear is that the zombies are already here, toiling mindlessly in an office near you.
A fair percentage of the rest of the year shall be consumed by wallowing in Philip K. Dick’s Exegesis (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), which, thus far, appears to be as mind-bendingly fabulous as I had hoped it would be.
I’m looking forward to reading Howard Rheingold’s latest book, Net Smart: How to Thrive Online (MIT Press, 2012). Howard’s books combine accessibility with media ecological insight, and in this book, Howard brings a practical, media literacy oriented approach to the great concern of finding balance among the services and disservices of new media.
I’ve been hearing really good things about Terrence Deacon’s recent work, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (W. W. Norton, 2011), as it relates contemporary thinking in systems theory (e.g., complexity, autopoiesis) to the question of consciousness, so I just recently added it to my list.
As a media ecology scholar, Elena Lamberti’s new contribution to McLuhan Studies, Marshall McLuhan’s Mosaic: Probing the Literary Origins of Media Studies (University of Toronto Press, 2012), is a must read, and her discussion of McLuhan’s relationship to Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and Wyndham Lewis speaks very much to the question of methodology in our field. Christine M. Tracy’s The Newsphere (Peter Lang, 2012), which follows up on some of Neil Postman’s insights about news in the television age, is also on my list.
Speaking of Postman, I will be giving Amusing Ourselves to Death (Penguin, 1985) a close rereading for a new book project I’m working on, and along with it I’ll be rereading Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 1932) and Brave New World Revisited (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 1952), and his later novel, Ape and Essence (Dee, 1948), another dystopian vision set in the aftermath of global warfare and destruction.
One book I’ve been meaning to get around to reading is The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath by Joe Lieberman and David Klinghoffer (Howard, 2011). I’m not sure if our 24/7/365.25 culture is quite ready to reverse its accelerated pace or retrieve the concept of the day of rest, but the Technology Shabbat movement is a response to our overheated media environment, and I’m interested in the topic as a media ecological practice, as well as a spiritual one.
Aaron C. Brown Red-Blooded Risk: The Secret History of Wall Street (John Wiley & Sons, 2012). Brown is risk manager at AQR Capital Management and a high-profile rocket scientist. Red-Blooded Risk introduced me to risk ignition: using “an optimal amount of risk” for “exponentially growing success” (p. 35). I had encountered this idea in the early trading careers of Bruce Kovner and Paul Tudor Jones II in the currency markets, and in the film Limitless: Brown provides a conceptual framework to understand their success. Brown has different views on the Dutch Tulipmania bubble; the Kelly Criterion; Harry Markowitz’s Modern Portfolio Theory, and Value at Risk. For how to use these insights, also read Dylan Evans’ Risk Intelligence: How to Live With Uncertainty (The Free Press, 2012). Brown’s previous book The Poker Face of Wall Street (John Wiley & Sons, 2006) persuasively argues that Wall Street’s roots lie in gambling and speculation.
Michael T. Klare The Race For What’s Left: The Global Scramble For the World’s Last Resources (Metropolitan Books, 2012). Klare is director of the Five College Program in Peace and World Security Studies at Amherst’s Hampshire College. Race focuses on the collision of resources scarcity, investment, international security, and geopolitical crises and flashpoints. Klare brings clear analysis to the Arctic, deep-offshore oil and gas drilling, mining, rare earths, hydrocarbons, and food production. As with Klare’s earlier books, Race is a primer to understand the volatility in global commodities markets, and the recent speculative bubble in rare earths.
John Lewis Gaddis George F. Kennan: An American Life (The Penguin Press, 2011). Kennan (1904-2005) was a United States diplomat, grand strategist and public intellectual credited with formulating the Cold War strategy of containment against the Soviet Union. The Yale historian Gaddis spent almost 30 years researching and 5 years writing this Pulitzer Prize-winning biography. The sections on Kennan’s ‘Long Telegram’ (1946), ‘X’ article (1947), and stint at the US State Department (1947-50) are insightful about how advisers can influence policymakers, how deep knowledge and experience can shape leaders, and the challenges of navigating organizational politics. Kennan emerges as a complex, ambivalent figure who became a realist critic of US foreign policy and an award-winning diplomatic historian. Gaddis’s in-depth research takes the reader deep into Kennan’s mind. For a contrasting view, check out Marc Trachtenberg’s The Cold War and After: History, Theory, and the Logic of International Politics (Princeton University Press, 2012).
John Gerring Social Science Methodology: A Unified Framework(second edition, Cambridge University Press, 2012). Gerring is a professor of political science at Boston University. A major insight of undertaking a political science PhD is how methodology is central to social sciences research. Gerring provides an integrative approach to conceptualizing research problems; descriptive arguments and measurements; causation; and pluralistic, inclusive ways to use different methodological traditions. Familiarity with research design and methods will give you the frameworks and tools to critically evaluate and synthesize information.
Gideon Lewis-Kraus A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful (Riverhead, 2012): A year ago, for this very same list, I was knee deep in Paul Theroux travelogues beneath the depths of the Hudson River en route from Jersey City to Manhattan and back. With real books in my backpack, somewhere between half-eaten Clif Bars and that unopened can of Red Bull that lingers as a reminder that I aspire to be energetic but remain energy-less at the end of a typical day.
Years can be dynamic.
The Red Bull is gone (exchanged at a corner store in Jersey City for a bottle of seltzer), and suddenly I’m driving a car down Century Boulevard next to Los Angeles International Airport, listening to NPR because you can’t read and drive legally, even in Los Angeles. Last week just happened to be their own version of a Summer Reading List, and I listened contently, glad that for once, it didn’t involve politics.
A bookstore, I can’t remember whom, mentioned A Sense of Direction in passing. I heard the words “pilgrimage” and “writer” and that was enough for me to take a mental note of the book and download it later on the weird contraption that advertises diapers and lets me read books without going to a book store or library.
I am only a chapter or so into the pilgrimage. The dedicated pilgrimage has just started for that matter. But I’m taken by Lewis-Kraus’ sense of existential malaise and his attempts to come to terms with the fact that he should be writing, and living, but can’t get past the lives he’s started thus far.
He begins in San Francisco, blissfully living on the cheap with his engineer younger brother, after a relationship has crumbled. This works, for a time, but both decide to move on. (Gideon to Berlin, Micah to Shanghai.) While in Berlin, the author falls in with a crowd that does what Berlin asks of them: live for cheap, enjoy the now, smoke cigarettes and attend art openings.
Lewis-Kraus does all this and more, but never rises above the situation to cast judgment on his friends for simply being in Berlin. He sleeps with women in relationships, doesn’t read the books he’s committed to reading and debates the position of Jews in modern Germany. He casts doubt on himself, wonders what and where he “should” be going, and escapes, for a weekend, to Estonia.
There, he commits to a pilgrimage with a friend across the northern tip of Spain. And that is as far as I’ve gotten so far. But I’ve been hooked the past few hours on it. Lewis-Kraus’ writing is self-deprecating without reaching for a laugh button. He is honestly lost, searching for something to give purpose to his life, and openly inviting the reader on a journey that questions the past, embraces the idiosyncrasies of the present and wonders how to make sense of the future.
Nick Harkaway Angelmaker: A Novel (Knopf, 2012) and The Blind Giant: Being Human in a Digital World (John Murray, 2012): Finally decided to order these after seeing them mentioned by people I respect a lot (e.g., Steven Shaviro, Charles Yu, William Gibson, et al.). The former is a surrealist noir novel like no other. The latter is an exploration of our device-riddled times (à la Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital), and may very well outmode my new book. Angelmaker is heady and heavy, but Harkaway’s prose is giddy in its grasp (see his recommendations above). This, Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (Vintage, 2011), and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (Night Shade, 2010) are my selection of current-ish novels.
Matthew Battles The Sovereignties of Invention (Red Lemonade, 2012): These short stories baffle and bewilder even as they entice and engross. Matthew Battles is able to achieve in just a few pages what most writers can’t do in a whole book. Where some build machines, Battles sharpens blades. This tiny tome and its tiny tales betray his position as a Harvard librarian: His subject matter(s) and mastery thereof are seemingly limitless.
George Dyson Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe (Pantheon, 2012): I ordered this on Howard Rheingold’s recommendation (see above). It’s as dense as he says it is, but it also rewards the patient read. It’s obvious early on that Dyson set out for this to be the definitive history of the birth of the digital.
As ever, I’m also reading and re-reading several older books. Among them are,
Bettina Knapp Machine, Metaphor, and the Writer: A Jungian View (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989): I’ve been dragging this book around for years since finding it at A Capella Books in Atlanta. I picked it up not only because it has “metaphor” in the title but also because the first chapter is about Alfred Jarry. I’ve read most of it once and a lot of it several times. Knapp’s approach is unique and generative, I revisit it regularly, and am planning to do so again in the coming weeks.
Anthony Wilden System and Structure: Essays in Communication and Exchange (Tavistock, 1972): Josh Gunn recommended System and Structure to me during my comprehensive exams defense, and I wish I’d come across it sooner. Wilden’s bird’s-eye approach makes this a meta-book that ties all sorts of areas together, from systems theory and semiotics to psychoanalysis and structuralism. To say that Wilden’s work has been slept-on is a gross understatement.
Victor Turner Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society (Cornell University Press, 1974): Again with the metaphors… I’ve found my recent research drifting across the line into anthropology, and Victor Turner has become one of my favorites. His extensive ethnographic studies of ritual and rites of passage are illuminating and provide homologies galore. This and his The Ritual Process (Aldine de Gruyter, 1969), as well as Arnold van Gennep’s The Rites of Passage (University of Chicago Press, 1960) are my current sources. The same can be said for Mary Douglas, whose work I’ve also been devouring, especially Purity and Danger (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966) and Risk and Culture with Aaron Wildavsky (University of California Press, 1982). It’s good to cross the lines sometimes.
What are you reading this summer? Let us know below.