Archive for the 'Books' Category

Žižek’s Violence

I admit it: Violence is my first book by Slavoj Žižek, the cultural critic, philosopher, and Lacan expert who ironically calls himself a Marxist. Through his psychoanalytic lens, and his endless arsenal of jokes, he penetrates deep into 21st century culture with astoundingly counter-intuitive insights. He is never boring, and he hardly ever relies on the pseudo-scientific jargon that many of his fellow academics so love to use. That said, from his many online articles and interviews, he seems to me like a man who is full of contradictions. At times he vituperates the old communist regimes under which he lived, praises the achievements of post WWII western Europe, even finds a good word or two to say about neocon chearleader Fukayama; at other times he slams the disunited left — who can only agree to disagree — and he ironically praises Stalin and modern monolithic leftist movements like Chavez’s regime in Venezuela.
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For Whom the Bell Tolls is overrated, and why McCain is probably the Manchurian Candidate

Ernest Hemingway’s famous war novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, is often cited as an exploration of the effects of war on people — in particular, the Spanish people during the tragic Spanish Civil War. The novel’s protagonist, Robert Jordan, is an American professor who volunteers on the side of the Spanish Republic, and, through the course of the novel, exhibits all the traits of a rugged Hemingway hero. Although set in the midst of the civil war, the war atmosphere Hemingway created is poorly executed, and his characters — with the exception of Robert Jordan — are hardly credible. It is really a novel about Ernest Hemingway’s ideal man: heroic, graceful in the face of death, enduring, macho, and, more than any of the other characteristics, a rugged individual. But it took him 400 pages too many to explain this.

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Foucault’s Madness and Civilization

Madness and Civilization is one of those must-read texts of 20th century continental philosophy. In it, Michel Foucault argues that reason is based on the exclusion of the mentally ill, who are placed in institutions where society attempts to forget them. This, he says, came as a result of the classical age and the Cartesian concept of cogito, where sane people were supposed to be able to exorcise madness from correct thinking, and mad people were those who gave primacy to their hallucinations. They were once romanticized in art, like in the proverbial ship of fools, but now they are bound to reason.

He traces the great confinement – a term he uses for the locking away of the insane – to the closing of the lazar houses in the 17th century. These institutions were then used to collect the rabble and the mentally unfit. Unreason, therefore, became akin to disease, and now it replaced leprosy as the great unknown terror. Later, in the industrial age, they were seen along with the rabble as potential cheap labor.

He argues that the conception that madness is defined along scientific terms is mistaken – it is really the prevailing morality that defines what madness is. Madness confined cannot cause fear, and it cannot offend reasonable and moral citizens of a state.

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Reworking Spillane’s Kiss Me Deadly

Kiss Me Deadly, the 1955 film version of Mickey Spillane’s pulp classic, is one of those rare exceptions of a film adaption surpassing the original book. Mike Hammer, the protagonist, is a sleazy P.I. who specializes in divorce cases. This changes one night when he gives a ride to a hysterical woman with a deadly secret. Hammer and the woman are captured by some mysterious men, and, after getting tortured, they are put back in his car and rolled over a cliff. The woman dies in a ball of flame and Hammer miraculously survives. Similar to Spillane’s other novels, this violent episode serves as the catalyst to a relentless story of revenge.

The difference, though, between the movie and the book, lies in the secret that the woman holds. This important difference is the reason why Spillane’s book is merely entertaining, while the film version of it is a trenchant critique on 1950s America. (Don’t worry, Hammer’s knuckle sandwiches and nymphomaniac girlfriends are still in practically every scene).

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Joseph Campbell and the spiritual shift

I finally read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which examines our religions, myths, folktales and legends, and pulls out the core element in them all – the monomyth, as he calls it. Ever since my teen years I’ve considered myself an atheist, but I’ve always been perturbed by certain atheists with a – and you can’t describe it any other way than this – dogmatic outlook and haughty disdain for people with “faith”. I’ve always found this feeling hard to put into words, but Joseph Campbell has done it masterfully, with the clear and eloquent language of a genius.

Myths and religion are not to be taken literally, which would make them easily dismissable as outright lies and childish fairy tales; they are not fantastic tales machinated by an evil mastermind to control people; rather, as folktale after folktale, myth after myth, religion after religion have proven when carefully examined, there is always a common message. The actors may change their garb from a tunic to a loincloth, the scenery may change from the desert to the Amazon, but they all share the same profound realization of “oneness”. The scope of Joseph Campbell’s book is astounding.

The point is now we are in a new age – heralded by Nietzsche in the 19th century – where we must still come to the same conclusions as the great religions came to. We have not outgrown our need for them. “The aim is not to see, but to realize that one is, that essence; then one is free to wander as that essence in the world.” That’s what the religions did when the skyline was our boundary and when the great oceans dropped off of precipices into the great unknown. The problem is that science is not the final answer to the “why”. Science may show us how a certain concatenation will lead to one event or another, but it will not explain “why” – and therein lies the power of the myth and religion. Perhaps now we need a change of values and consciousness on a global scale, and it won’t come with our antiquated religions, or mere science.

The universal triumph of the secular state has thrown all religious organizations into such a definitely secondary, and finally ineffectual, position that religious pantomime is hardly more today than a sanctimonious exercise for Sunday morning, whereas business ethics and patriotism stand for the remainder of the week. Such a monkey-holiness is not what the functioning world requires; rather, a transmutation of the whole social order is necessary, so that through every detail and act of secular life the vitalizing image of the universal god-man who is actually immanent and effective in all of us may be somehow made known to consciousness.

That’s a spiritual shift, and no amount of decoding the human genome, smashing protons, or obsessive interpretations of the Torah, the Koran or the Bible will solve it. Nietzsche was so right about the age we are now in.

Campbell also says:

The differentiations of sex, age, and occupation are not essential to our character, but mere costumes which we wear for a time on the stage of the world. The image of man within is not to be confounded with the garments [which is the whole point of asceticism]. We think of ourselves as Americans, children of the twentieth century, Occidentals, civilized Christians. We are virtuous or sinful. Yet such designations do not tell what it is to be a man, they denote only the accidents of geography, birth-date, and income. What is the core of us? What is the basic character of our being?

This is my kind of thinker. We need to get out these false categories we make up for ourselves and confront who we really are.