Book Reviews (3)

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race – Reni Eddo-Lodge

As Nathan J Robinson wrote regarding this book in a Current Affairs article on David Brooks: ‘The title is actually somewhat misleading; it might more accurately be called Why It Would Be Nice If White People Could Just Be Quiet and Listen For a Minute Before Telling Me Their Opinions on Race, and Then Maybe I Can Actually Talk To White People About Race.’

Many angry comments based purely on the title perfectly demonstrate Eddo-Lodge’s point. These people seem to find a provocative choice of title more troubling than, for example, that people with non-white sounding names are less likely to get job interviews. There’s a great deal of serious information in this book about structural racism in British society, and a lot of people who won’t bother reading it because they’re too upset by the title.

Eddo-Lodge points out that ‘this isn’t about good and bad people’, that easy to condemn overt prejudice can distract us from more covert and systematic issues. She links race to issues of gender and class (e.g. discussing the use of the white working class as a prop to divert discussions on race, as though the working class is all white or that we can’t tackle race and class issues together), and lambasts shallow performative wokeness: ‘a safety pin stuck to your lapel […] won’t stop someone from getting deported.’

This book argues very solidly on a range of issues, from colour blindness to white privilege to positive discrimination to white feminism to the Rhodes Must Fall movement and more, skewering weak or disingenuous arguments – certainly changing my mind on various points. There are points where the argument slackens, particularly her failure to interrogate Nick Griffin as sharply as she could have.

The stronger logical thrusts are rather satisfying. On outraged responses to the idea of Idris Elba playing James Bond, she comments, ‘This strength of feeling over classic stories being ruined wasn’t around when the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist was remade in a film in which the lead character was cast in the image of a cartoon cat.’

Much more could be said, but really – go read the book.

Two Serpents Rise – Max Gladstone

The sequel to Last First Snow, with grown-up Caleb as the lead, working for Red King Consolidated to deal with a shadow-thing infestation in Dresediel Lex’s water supply, spilling into a plot of corporate/political machinations with apocalyptic potential.

The pace settles in a happy medium between the breakneck Three Parts Dead and slow-starting Last First Snow, brisk and tense but with time to be reflective. Gladstone deals with the conflict between idealism and pragmatism, exposing more of the brutality underlying a society running on Craft as characters wrestle with whether the system they have can be acceptable, and what a better way might be.

The cast are more compelling than in LFS, particularly adult Caleb, and the world-building is impressive as usual. It might have been interesting to see more of how the Skittersill has changed though.

Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? – Mark Fisher

A short text with a great deal of influence in anti-capitalist circles, in which Fisher outlined the nature and consequences of ‘capitalist realism’ – an ideology presenting capitalism as the only conceivable system, while – significantly – concealing its own place as an ideology, instead treating itself as unassailable natural law and anything except capitalism as ideology run amok.

The basic concept is well stated. Fisher was onto something. There are cogent points about subjects such as the injection of business frameworks into public services, or the treating of mental health as an individual biological issue. He puts ideas from Slavoj Žižek and others to good use, e.g. drawing on the Lacanian idea of the ‘big Other’ in discussing ‘an official culture in which capitalist enterprises are presented as socially responsible and caring [as opposed to] a widespread awareness that companies are actually corrupt, ruthless, etc.’

(To be honest, I’d just thought of Žižek as a living meme with a weird thing about anal fisting.)

There was definitely some critical-theory-speak I couldn’t figure out. Sorry Fisher, we haven’t all read Deleuze. Worse, Fisher uses weird dodgy logic on occasions, and severely under-explains. It’s often assumed we know what he’s on about, giving no or limited examples of what he sees as a self-evident (actually rather abstract and difficult to immediately grasp) trend in culture. And referring to a couple films for examples doesn’t always cut it when you’re trying to identify a culture-wide ideological keystone.

‘On the one hand, this is a culture that privileges only the present and the immediate[;] on the other hand, it is a culture that is excessively nostalgic, given over to retrospection[.]’ How does our culture only privilege the present? How is it given over to retrospection? How on earth is it both at once, man!? Is this unique to modern ideology? This is such a general statement that it’s hard to completely disagree, but also hard to really agree with or pull something meaningful from. It’s frustrating.

As a way to help understand key dynamics of modern mainstream ideology and point towards a 21st century approach for the radical left, this was an interesting and illuminating read. No doubt some of my confusion would ease on a re-read, and again, the central ideas are potent. However, the book too often leaps to big conclusions from little reasoning, and the Theoryese was a struggle.

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old – Hendrik Groen

A fictional diary of a year in a Dutch care home, this is a poignant, often tragic exploration of ageing, bureaucratic farce, and society’s treatment of the elderly – balanced by dark and light comedy, friendship, and the resistance of anarchic octogenarians determined to enjoy life.

Hendrik forms a group staunchly committed to getting on with life without the negative, passive attitude of many of their fellow ‘inmates’. While their humour, warmth, and refusal to age gracefully lifted the mood, I still found this a bit of a downer.

It’s billed as a comedy, but I didn’t find it that funny generally. A lot of people seem to have found otherwise, so you might find it a bigger laugh. Still a good book, but not what I was expecting.

5 thoughts on “Book Reviews (3)

  1. Though I sense the basis of your complaints and though you could be right he could’ve explained better, I found Fischer’s book compelling. But maybe because it resonated with so much of my other readings and my own thoughts. It confirmed and strengthened my sense of what is off about our society. I guess I was better able to fill in the gaps that bothered you. For example, you ask, “How does our culture only privilege the present? How is it given over to retrospection? How on earth is it both at once, man!? Is this unique to modern ideology?”

    That kind of thing doesn’t seem hard for me to understand, as I’ve been pondering it for years; and it’s often come up in my blog writings. Most Americans are historically ignorant and amnesiac or else extremely selective in what they know. Yet American culture is obsessed with the past (maybe because the US has such a short history), if generally in the form of nostalgic fictions of revisionist history and invented traditions. The two aren’t in opposition. It’s precisely our fantasies about the past that trap us within the ideological realism of the present.

    The last question you ask is interesting. Is it unique? My suspicion is that it is. There is something fundamentally different about the modern mind, a topic I’ve explored in immense detail in numerous writings. The tendency toward abstract thinking, as is formed from literacy and literary culture, does alter the way ideology operates. I’ve found helpful learning about Louis Althusser’s theory of interpellation or hailing. And in my own conjecturing, I’ve connected that to Julian Jayne’s theory of authorization. But there is also the rise of modern mental illness, such as ‘nostalgia’ first named in reference to a perceived disease.

    Liked by 1 person

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