Month: September 2010

Book Review 101

Just a tip from an editor to those who might want to write book reviews. For academic reviews, yes, it’s great if you have an authorial voice and offer incisive analysis. But, first, (1) provide an overall picture of the author’s work. What’s he or she known for, if at all? Then, (2) summarize the book. You don’t need to do this with the “In the first chapter… Then in the second chapter… Then in the third chapter…” type of summary, but that’s better than no summary at all. (3) Make sure to leave behind crumbs to eat up later as you enter your critical section on what is promising or deflating about the work… Remember your readers: is this a Hegel journal? Then you can take some concepts for granted. But if it’s RPR, then we’re working across various venn diagrams of intersecting interest and so defining terms and concepts is important. It even helps when a person’s work is well known, since people might know parts, but you might be able to offer a savvy pass-key tying together that person’s disparate works.

Speaking of Journals…

I think someone mentioned recently the depressing thought that they don’t read journal articles. Obviously, please don’t tell me any such thing when I’m locked in editing and layout mode…it’s too depressing to countenance. But since I just mentioned book reviews, it is probably true that I’m probably do check out book reviews first in journals, and I’m happy that more and more journals (not ours, alas) are publishing reviews online…


I’m laying out RPR 13, no. 2 this week, and that means…well, it means I’m operating on my three levels (Editorial Committee, Managing Editor, and Book Review editor), thus laying out, thinking of the issue as a whole coming together, and right now, looking at the book reviews: Just a short thank you to those who responded to my previous posts here, where I’ve gotten some really great takes on major books published over the last year or so.

Ruth Franklin on Franzen’s Freedom

Here, from TNR. It’s quite a negative review, all told. But it strikes me as the worst form of criticism: she’s really critiquing those who hold it up as a masterpiece, and then derides the book for not being that. It’s not world historical enough; it’s not masterpiece enough… well, who could survive those withering standards? That’s not to say it is a masterpiece and it doesn’t have problems, but it’s a good book, with nice, long stretches of inventive writing. (The worst cliched moment, which she doesn’t mention, is actually the moment Walter does his “i’ve had enough and can’t take it anymore” speech.) And, I might point out, one could crawl through any work and find cliches of sentences, etc. That’s what language, after all, is. And yes, I worry that it just holds up a mirror to Americans all too happy to read about themselves. But that should make one want to write a different book, not tear down the one that somehow one says is Icarus flying to the sun…

Henri de Boulainvilliers

Stuart Elden mentions him in a blog update on his next book. I use Boulainvilliers, in fact, to set up some of my discussion in The State of Sovereignty, though I ended up cutting quite a bit to shorter that part of the MS. Generally, he’s been treated as this somewhat naive aristocrat and, admittedly, his work on Spinoza was strikingly unoriginal. (Though Boulainvilliers is remarkable for the time: he goes from translating Spinoza–providing the first in French—who, needless to say, often stood for all that was wrong with the Jews and/or atheists. Then, not long after, he’s writing eulogies to Mohammed and the progressive spirit of Islam. In short, what ties them together is Boulainvilliers hate of the monarchical sovereignty and the political theology used to prop it up. At least, that’s my claim.) Since no one cares about him, I can safely reproduce two footnotes from The State of Sovereignty on him. The second is a biting quote from Montesquieu (whose “spirit of the laws,” fyi, borrows from Boulainvilliers’s notion of the “spirit of the Franks,” as well as other sources)

9. As with all of Boulainvilliers’ works, the Dissertation sur la noblesse de France was published posthumously. Though Diderot rightly noted that Boulainvilliers was quite famous in his time (cited in Simon, Thèse principale, 1), few editions of his work were published. I am grateful to the Newberry Library in Chicago for its help in tracking down this and other original manuscripts. Ellis’s text is the only extensive work in English on Boulainvilliers in recent memory, though the latter’s work has proved crucial not only to the intellectual debates of his time, but also to the genealogies of nationalism and race-thinking in the work of Hannah Arendt (e.g., Origins of Totalitarianism, 180-2) and Foucault, who devotes two lectures to Boulainvilliers in his 1975-6 lectures at the Collège de France, published in English as “Society Must Be Defended.” Renée Simon offers a helpful introduction to Boulainvilliers in his Thèse principale: Henry de Boulainviller: Historien, politique, philosophe, astrologue, 1658-1722. Simon’s work is strangely marred by some notable errors, including the publication dates of Boulainvilliers’ work. In addition, Simon follows some of Boulainvilliers’ later enemies by changing his name as he does. This would be no matter of small import to Boulainvilliers, whose work, to say the least, is a defense of his patrimony and his genealogy, all attached to a history of his property and lineage, that is to say, his proper name. Simon’s introductions to the two volumes of Boulainviller: Oeuvres Philosophiques, however, provide a helpful overview of Boulainvilliers’ philosophical work. The selections in the Ouevres Philosophiques include “refutations” of Spinoza as well as essays on the body, human fate, the world, and a too short, though ultimately unoriginal, essay (written in letter form to his son as he prepared for the priesthood, though he, like Boulainvilliers’ elder son, would die before his teenage years were out) on the relation between human freedom and God’s “perfect sovereignty.” There, Boulainvilliers distinguishes between human will, which can act on the world (and thus would fall under the prescience of God) and the intellectual liberty of all, which provides for some space of freedom, he believed, under the power of the Sovereign. Like Rousseau later, Boulainvilliers’ argument for human freedom is question begging: without freedom, he argues, there would be no morality, and thus would make any moral laws useless (Volume II, 341). However, the Oeuvres Philosophiques does include important philosophical texts. These include letters and essays in which Boulainvilliers, who published the first French translation of Spinoza’s Ethics, showed a growing sympathy for Spinoza, as well as anything from his last work, written the year before he died, Vie de Mahomed (1730 and 1731; published clandestinely in Amsterdam with London on the title page). In this work, Boulainvilliers presents Islam as a more “rational” religion than Christianity, arguing that it is much more accepting of the progress in science. Boulainvilliers seems to find a kindred spirit in Islam’s founder, saying that Islam not only freed its converts of superstition and strange forms of mysticism, but also took down, through Mohammed’s teachings, the despotism of Eastern monarchs. The comparison with the corrupt Western churches is inescapable (and of course, the centralized quasi-“divine” monarchies of Europe), which Boulainvilliers had long blamed for its help in bringing down the power of the nobles from the 13th century onward. Only the Revelation provides us with the knowledge that Christianity is the true faith, but readers of Boulainvilliers found this assertion half-hearted, accusing Boulainvilliers of having joined, in his last days, the heathens to the East (Israel, Radical Enlightenment, 572). The separate political theology that Boulainvilliers finds in Islam will have to wait for another time.

10. Though he used Boulainvilliers’ histories in his own reconstruction of Salic and Roman laws as guideposts for thinking of an ongoing French constitution, Montesquieu remarks, dryly, “As [Boulainvilliers’] work is penned without art, and as he speaks with the simplicity, frankness, and candor of that ancient nobility whence he descends, every one is capable of judging of the good things he says, and of the errors into which he has fallen. I shall not, therefore, undertake to criticize him; I shall only observe that he had more wit than enlightenment, more enlightenment than learning; though his learning was not contemptible, for he was well acquainted with the most valuable part of our history and laws” (Spirit of the Laws, XXX: 10).

Harman on Mark Taylor

Graham writes:

Like many people, I’ve found Taylor’s recent op-ed pieces (and now a book growing from one of them) to be unilluminating in a number of ways.

However, I think Bell [who reviewed Taylor’s book] is a bit too quick to dismiss the idea of an “education bubble”. I’m not sure how long the formula of skyrocketing tuition plus ghastly student loan debt can continue. Already I know a dozen or so people with humanities Ph.D.’s and over $100,000 in debt.

His point is well made. The cost of education has been made possible through the student loan industry. Thus while wages have been stagnant for the last several decades, those very same people are now paying much more of their income to the banks and health insurance companies. Underplayed this past year was the federal legislation that changed this dynamic a bit, in terms of considering such loans paid after a given amount of time (though, of course, still well into middle age).

But sadly, I think this is going to be an ongoing bubble (in which case, I guess it’s not a “bubble”). Why? Because with organized labor now killed off, or limping, the massive cost of higher education is the price to pay for a “middle class” existence. And public universities are cutting back heavily, such that the number of people taking out loans to get “degrees” from private, for-profit universities is on the rise. And the crop rotation each year just lays the seed for more of this, not less. A bubble economy is one built on models of infinite growth against limited possible consumption. But, in this case, it’s hard to see where the stopping point would be. So, we’ll have further generations of young people graduating absolutely needing the first job handed to them, with a 6 month clock ticking down to their first payment on those loans. Then those loans are not cheap and thus one has an indefinite “I’ll have to keep this job no matter what” approach well until this person’s own kids are getting ready for college, and the cycle repeats.

Then you’ll read from people who should know better about how this young generation just loves to live with its parents and are lazy, video-game playing losers. (I leave this as a note to my future, no-doubt even more grumpy self: someone will dig this up if you write something like that in the future. So don’t do it.)

Finally, while Graham is making a good point, it’s not one really connected to Mark Taylor’s book, since his “solutions” would only accentuate these problems (providing useless “interdisciplinary” degrees from private, corporate-style universities). In other words, perhaps there is some sort of bubble, as Taylor suggests….but give a wild monkey a hammer and it will hit the hammer on the head once in a while. But that doesn’t mean you trust it to build your home.

A Quick Addendum to the Last Post

I’m quickly grabbing two consecutive footnotes from my book, The State of Sovereignty, relating to the last post on noo-politics, just to back up the claims in a minor way:

[FN1] Arguing that “revolt…as return/turning back/displacement/change, constitutes the profound logic of a certain culture I would like to revive,” namely “European culture,” “and whose acuity seems quite threatened these days….The future, if it exists, depends on it” (Kristeva, Intimate Revolt, 4-5). Let’s be clear on the stakes: “In fact, if such a culture”—again, the “European culture of revolt”—“did not exist, life would become a life of death, that is, a life of physical and moral violence, barbarity” (Kristeva, Sense and Non-Sense of Revolt, 6-7). All this as we have become wholly organic, “an ensemble of organs” as “patrimonial subjects” incapable of critical thought (Ibid., 30). And thus we have here, in all its classical rigor, a functioning chain of dualisms: Europe and barbarity, living and dead, psyche and body, past and future that would found, in this noopolitics, a revolt that can revolt against anything but this cultural foundation.

[FN2] Stiegler writes, “Those acceding to irresponsibility cannot take its consequences seriously… They are stripped not merely of critical consciousness, but of consciousness itself: they become nothing more than a brain,” living in a “structural I-don’t-give-a-damnism” (Stiegler, Taking Care of Youth and Generations, 43). Steigler’s book, needless to say, is a work of political pedagogy, one that champions processes of individuation that “produc[e] unity in the social body [his emphasis], at the national (and perhaps—tomorrow, one might hope—European) level” (Ibid., 69).

The reference to “political pedagogy” is just a quick stab at a theme that coalesced in the last run-through of the manuscript, pulling together the use of lessons for propagating various forms of sovereignty.