This month I am currently reading: Chaos Ethics

Earlier this month I kindly recieved a draft of Chris Bateman‘s forthcoming title, Chaos Ethics. The publication date is forthcoming. Chaos Ethics completes a trilogy of titles put out by Bateman which starts with Imaginary Games (2011) and last year’s Mythology of Evolution (2012). Like Mythology before it, Bateman combines an unusual combination of sources from philosophers such as Kant to those notable cultural staples of Dungeons and Dragons and Cyberpunk to create a picture of morality, the title of which is a reference to Sidgwick’s Methods of Ethics. I am as impressed at the references at the end of the book as I am to the book itself, as they form an interesting cocktail of ideas.

 

You can find out about the forthcoming title from Chris here.

 

Michael

Reading Adorno: In Search of Wagner (3) ‘Motiv’

Introduction

 

In this essay I will address a view that I acknowledged in a post last year in an extended discussion I had about film soundtracks and leitmotif, in my critique of a Chris Bateman talk. I will examine Adorno’s view of Wagner’s use of Leitmotif, where the former effectively thinks that leitmotif has been diluted to become simply a marker of a character’s presence. Adorno also has specific points of critique to make about the nature of how leitmotif is applied by Wagner.

 

I shall firstly go into an attempt at exegesis on this essay, to try and get down to the charitable perspective of Adorno’s reservations about Wagner’s use of leitmotif. I should also say that I’ve had a struggle reading and trying to work out this essay. I might read this essay again in 20 years and have a completely different reading!

 

Exegesis – motif 

 

Adorno makes the bold point that leitmotif is being degraded in some way, cheapened even. It is suggested by Adorno that Wagner inter alia reflect the degredation of leitmotif to what it had eventually become:

 

“The degeneration of the leitmoti[f] is implicit in this: via the ingenious illustrative techique of Richard Strauss it leads directly to cinema music where the sole function of the leitmoti[f] is simply to announce heroes or situations so as to help the audience to orientate itself more easily.” [p.36]

 

Adorno makes the point that Wagner makes no progress beyond Viennese Classicism. Wagner advances a particular heritage of classicism that emphasises individuality, which then led to Wagner’s exploitation of communicating ambiguities. I take this kind of ambiguity to refer to a generic sense: psychological, musical (harmonic) and symbolically.

 

Adorno quotes Paul Bekker, a contemporamous music critic, who says that expression is fundamental ‘category’ of Wagner’s work. Adorno examines expressivity specifically through the development of the motif. A motif is a recognisable unit that can constitute melody, harmony or rhythm at its most basic sense. Leitmotif is the effective use of repeating a motif in a notable way. If I were having a cafe conversation with limited time, I would probably say ‘its sort of like a theme tune’. However, it is exactly Adorno’s point that leitmotif should be a more superior thing to just a theme tune. It is this revulsion to considering leitmotif as theme tune-motif  that I want to try to explore, Adorno’s critique of Wagner’s use of leitmotif.

 

The specific allegations 

 

Adorno points out the ambiguities in Wagner’s motifs, of lacking a temporal nature but rather appearing ‘totalising’ like some kind of Kantian or Post-Kantian system of metaphysics. Adorno also points out, with the specific example of the Tristanunde Isolde leitmotif, the use of chromaticism and its consequent ambiguitiy which has an allegorical nature.

 

Adorno says something that almost sounds like a compliment. Wagner’s richly forged chords (with a very overly complicated terminology for non-musicians) allows for a variety of possible interpretations, which could lead to different places, that do many things simultaneously. At the same time this richness of harmony I think Adorno considers as creating an other-worldly unity. One which is very much outside of the established principles of Viennese Classicism.

 

I think Adorno acknowledges that some of the innovations that Wagner makes in his harmonies are very clever. The use of secondary dominants and the particular harmonic progressions that Wagner makes, are psychologised to have a particular philosophical significance. Adorno considers it to be totalising, like the thinking of systematic philosophies, such as (allegedly) Kant, or Hegel, the refusal to return to the tonic is psychologised as a form of psychological regression. This is a very bold claim and one I am almost willing to take seriously.

 

Adorno considers such motifs regressive. There is an irony here. Adorno acknowledges how Wagner is refusing to be classical stylistically in the vein of Mozart, at the same time he uses the innovations of the ‘First Viennese school’. This very fact is an interesting contradiction. Wagner is classically informed, yet romantic. Anti-romantic, and yet anti-classical. I would consider this an interesting form of subversion. Very clever.


Adorno points out another juxtaposition. Wagner stylistically is classical in an atomistic sense, but in a wider global sense is anti-structure. Wagner gives the interesting impression of accessibility to the philistine. I think it is worth having in mind Adorno’s views on totalitarian thinking here, which he exhibits in another essay. Adorno is cautious of instrumental thinking, of rationalisation and totalising thought. Although these are from other essays beyond this collection.

 

Adorno considers the way in which Wagner’s motif is applied as bourgeois. Why? Because within the totality of it, there is a constant allusion and development and emergence of a single motif, that motif is constantly played with and treated as an individual. But it is an illusion, Adorno says. There is a lack of dialectic or antagonism towards the development of such a motif. These things make Wagner distinctly different from Viennese Classicism.

 

The contrast to Viennese Classicism is a significant one. I consider this to underpin the formalism imbued within Adorno’s musical criticism. I think that Adorno is advocating the view of formalism, namely, that it is the structural components of music that construe its aesthetic merit. It is often considered that the ‘First Viennese School’ were the great masters of such form. The allusion to Viennese Classicism is significant for the same reason I am constantly referring to it as the ‘First School’. A first school surely requires a second school, and the second school of Viennese Classicism would be Schoenberg and his disciples.

Adorno speaks of how Wagner appropriates disperately contrasting elements. Wagner attempts to combine opera seria with opera buffa. Wagner is genuinely altering the bourgeosie sensibilities of the time yet also entice a new set of sensibilities while gaining the respectability of a more ‘serious’ or learned audience. Wagner creates an overall more intensive musical experience as the drama and libretti merge with the musical composition and the directions of the conductor.  This sense of unity represents politically repressive themes of Wagner’s overall outlook: the totalisation of his music represents: “a halt to the action and […] the life process of society”.

Perhaps another way of communicating this is when we think about fictional worlds, we often take it at face value due to our lack of familiarity, and rarely, unless the text allows us to do so, critique it. When we look at a film like the Lion King, we are in awe at what is portrayed as the natural order and we do not question it. We become in more modern terminology, passive consumers, accepting the vision of the text that is given to us, because the construction of the cultural artefact encourages that limiting interpretation.

Michael

Reading Goffman (2): Props and Teams

One of the primary drivers of our social interactions are the things that signify or confer some form of identity. In some cases these signifiers may denote a particular role we seek to perform, or see others performing. This defines our expectations and parameters with them. These props are useful tools to govern interaction.

Following the dramaturgical analogy of Goffman, the props that constitute social interaction are much like the props in a stage play, these are the costumes of the actor, or perhaps the scenery of the set. Carrying a defective table set with a missing leg in the returns queue of Ikea is the primary motivation of an angry customer to the customer service person at the till, and forms the basis of their interaction.

This is not to say that props are necessary or criterial of interactions, however they are such important drivers of interaction that interactions without props may involve creating new forms of props with significance internal to the agents who confer meaning to such a prop. An example of this was an energy driink that I bought for the sole purpose of making an in-joke with a certain friend, following a conversation about a certain brand of energy drink that we had a month previously.

Props are signifiers of roles, but are not necessarily conferring of roles. A related aspect of Goffman’s social ontology is the role of teams in interactions. People working with a shared goal, or under the auspices of a shared identity, be it of an organisation or grouping by creed (or something else) work in collusion with each other, when interacting with outsiders. There is a distinct world that the colluding team try to portray towards those outside of this group, and a certain set of behaviours or rituals of activity are performed in before the outsider.

Teams can be placed under a strict form of behaviour. Disagreement between members of a group can be downplayed or even unacknowledged towards outsiders. Some organisations have their own official and unofficial codes of conduct to give guidance towards the proper image and impression that is given by the organisation. Team behaviour can be highly regimented and controlled, either overtly by one of the members, or tacitly and among several agents at the same time.

When reading Goffman the worry does emerge about how strictly controlled social interactions can be. I see this regimentation in two opposing senses. In one respect it can be affirming towards uncertainty and a loss of face, in that rule-following behaviour, whether tacit or not, provides the pool of options an agent has in a given social situation. On the other hand, one could see the regimentation of such team behaviour and the application of props to be an almost tyrannical form of control over the individual. This is a tyranny not of the political persuasion, but the kind we all agree and consent to, which in a way is even worse. People often speak of the political tyranny of policing behaviour and thought, when the state is percieved in some way to intervene. However, what if collective humanity may be responsible for uniformity of interactions viz the regimentation of behaviour through props and teams? This is a tyranny of another sort, one which paints Goffman as a social cynic, and anyone who would agree with his viewpoint.

So with that I would ask: what goes against this vision of the world?

The next post will be on the ‘front and back regions’.

Destre

Feminism, a counterpoint: On bell hooks’ ‘Feminism is for Everybody’

Since the blog ‘A Year of Feminist Classics’ started their monthly online reading group last year, I’ve tried to follow a few of their books that I could find easily. In this post I will consider Feminism as construed by bell hooks in the book ‘Feminism is for Everybody’. In particular I will frame her understanding of feminism in a way that is completely antithetical as a response to social and cultural inequalities to my favourite social thinker: Theodor Adorno

bell hooks defines Feminism essentially as a commitment to the end of sexist oppression. This is such a vague definition it allows for a variety of feminisms. One of the overriding themes of hooks’ book is that there are different kinds of feminisms within the unitary aegis of the label ‘feminism’. Once the influence of some feminist ideas and social and legislative reforms came to pass, a counter-discourse, or several counter-discourses emerged to critique the former reformer feminists as disingenuous and appealing to their sense of priviledge. Priviledge and the appeal to priviledge is something I don’t quite understand in this literature, but it serves as a way of pointing out how one form of oppression may take place even in a critical discourse.

There are at least three ways in which my experience of reading hooks’ ‘Feminism’ is utterly different to my ongoing read of Adorno. Firstly, Feminism, much like Liberation Theology or the committed socialist Marxists, consider activism and social reform as essential to the movement, as well as the ‘theory’ that underlies it. Secondly, feminism is distinctly optimistic. Thirdly and finally, feminism, according to hooks, has a commitment to accessibility in terms of the understandable nature of the ideas and proposals addressed, and in co-opting all people (women across all divides and men).

Feminism as praxis; Adorno as theoria

Feminist movements, feminist literature and feminist ideas, in its 19thC inception through to today emphasise activist activity. To call for the end of sexist oppression is to call for a state of affairs in the world. Feminism shares much with Marxism in that it calls for action and change, as well as a theoretical understanding of the world (cf. Feuerbach’s 11th thesis).

Action is important, because what is wanted is a better world. This may seem obvious to some but one must appreciate that there are many who are invested in the status quo for a variety of reasons. It would seem according to hooks, that there is a certain amount of division of labour within the feminist movement, there is a place for all levels of activity, from theorising in the academy, to large scale reform and grassroots movement. hooks calls for feminist television channels and radio for example. Since the book was written in 2000, I wonder what the author would think of Anita Sarkeesian’s ‘Feminist Frequency’ or the influential role of the bloggosphere.

The role of praxis seems almost entirely absent in the work of Adorno. Adorno is committed to the analysis of culture and the way in which the oppressive nature of capitalism is maintained through mass media (the culture industry). By contrast to the likes of Horkheimer or Mercuse, Adorno seems distinctly committed to the all encompassing influence of capitalism in such a powerful way that the reform towards more egalitarian relations is increasingly difficult to achieve. Adorno is, as I would bluntly put it, a Marxist without the communist revolution. It is very much in following his intellectual forebears Weber, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, pessimistic.

Optimism versus pessimism

Feminism strives for a better world, and it should be said that the conditions have vastly changed in the reform of the social, legalistic and economic conditions of women. hooks points out that these changes for women should raise the question ‘changes for whom?’. For example, the place of contraceptive measures has liberated the sexuality of many women in allowing them to be more forthcoming about their sexuality, but this is only for a section of the female population for whom contraceptives are affordable or culturally viable. Even when advancing the dialectic of feminist critique through class, ethnic and lesbian discourses, reform is implicitly implied through advancing the feminist conversation. Inherent to the feminist cause is the possibility and actuality of social change towards the elimination of sex based oppression.

This is an interesting counterpoint to Adorno, who leaves very little in the sense of social and economic reform. There are glimmers within Adorno’s thought to suggest that there is a limited possibility for social criticism in culture, and even though Adorno addresses a largely different discourse to gender inequality, he hardly thought that radically positive change would happen in the condition of capitalism. Adorno takes an almost Kantian turn in looking at the conditions of possibility when it came to the mass media, and in looking at the conditions of possibility for the subsuming of culture under capitalism, also sets the conditions for its downfall, and such conditions are far too tight to give much optimism about change.

The role of accessibility

The most amusing aspect of comparison is accessibility. There are two senses of access that hooks considers. Firstly there is the accessibility of understanding, that feminism as an idea is presented in simple readable language that people can understand whatever their education level is. hooks even suggests the importance of audiobooks for promoting the message to the non-literate, I’m quite a fan of the audiobook as a medium. hooks insinuates at various points that while the presence of feminist academics is a great way of establishing institutional status and credibility for the movement, there is a risk of alienating their materials in the technical jargon and difficult language of the academic that prevents the ordinary person from reading and understanding it.

I have a few things to say about the importance of certain insights from feminist theory, namely, the role of sympathy, and the benefit of gender reflexibity on the history of philosophy or the methodological insights that can come from a gender sensitivity to the construction of knowledge, but I’ll leave that to another post perhaps as that is not confined within hooks book. To be an intellectual within an activist movement means to communicate to an audience who has a set goal for a concrete outcome, as such, communicability is vital. Accessibility is deeply linked to activism. I have noticed on the occupy websites for instance that one of their ground rules is to aim to communicate in a way that is understandable for many people.

What of Adorno on this regard? Well, Adorno is notoriously difficult to understand and I think that is what motivates much of the criticism from many later people to call him ‘elitist’. Adorno’s alleged elitism comes from the influence of philosophy and social theory; psychoanalysis and serialist modernism. To understand Adorno’s critique of society means that it would help to also understand expressionism. Were it not for my interest in Kant, sociology and the music of schoenberg, as well as my cultural outlook that despair is the most fundamental expression relevant to the contemporary world, I probably wouldn’t read Adorno. I hardly keep accessibility in mind when I am familiar with many of the authors and ideas that he refers to (but not all, it should be said).

Adorno writes as an academic. Adorno even acknowledges his priviledge as an academic author in the essay “Free Time”. There comes a point in understanding an issue where it is necessarily complicated, and being impenetrable to the general public seems a distantly difficult goal. This is of course, the goal of anyone who tries to publically promote an academic discourse, many do so by glossing over certain things or just getting to the punchline. For many issues this is not very easy. I wonder if there is a link between his pessimism of social change to the difficult way in which he writes.

hooks uses accessibility in a second sense, in trying to get more people involved with feminism and that they can see it as something relevant to them or something that they can contribute to. One thing that I find interesting about hooks’ other sense of accessibility is something I did not suspect, namely men. Men are apparently important to the feminist movement. hooks states that men can help in a few specific aspects, through activism and through their everyday understanding of the world through gender (for instance, if they are involved with the upbringing of children or engaged in relationships with women). As a man reading this book, seems to me that it is important to be self conscious of gender, not only in observing it in the world, but in one’s own behaviour and beliefs.

Final Remarks: other aspects of feminism

In self-reflection, we need to take account of our own internal sexisms, this may be learned or developed. Sometimes the perpetrators of sexism are themselves women, and the battle to eliminate sexism may involve confrontations with women upholding patriarchy. Reflexivity is a crucial aspect of the movement, and I would say further, any activist cause. Consciousness raising is a related and important aspect of the feminist discourse. In identifying and calling out instances of patriarchy or the cultural assumptions present in culture, we may discover the underlying values and ideology of the discourses in everyday life and the mass media. Consciousness raising is an aspect of the feminist cause that is perhaps the most understandable to a wider audience, for instance noticing how children’s products are marketed differently between the genders, or how toys for children reflect cultural assumptions such as the passivity of females and the activity of males.

One ongoing theme of my own thought is the important role of pessimism, both in the sense of (a lack of) positive social change as well as in the Schopenhauer sense of an ethical insight to frame one’s life. My growing interest in feminism comes from consciousness raising, but it may stop at the way it conflicts with my pessimism. In emphasising the activist component of the feminist movement, hooks frames the disagreements between feminists as a dispute on the way to achieving the shared goal of eliminating sexist prejudice. Certainly more can be said on the theoretical import that feminism might bring, but perhaps I’ll leave that for another post. I find it really refreshing and challenging that feminism for many people is an activist cause rather than an armchair pursuit. Many feminist identifying groups have been very good at the DIY punk style ethic of activism. But will it stop me from being a pessimist? I’ll leave that for future posts to try and work that one out.

Kant’s First Critique: The Transcendental Analytic

Kant’s chapter on the Transcendental Analytic is concerned with the positive role of reason. The cognitive psychology of Kant’s epistemology is of a large mental architecture which seems quite complicated for textual reasons as well as its own consistency. The idea of the big scheme is so prevalent in the Kantian philosophy, that even the exposition of this idea takes place within (wait for it)…a big scheme.

The essence of the Transcendental Logic was to point out that underlying most everyday experience is an underlying scheme, the Transcendental Analytic is, in Kant’s terminology, the explication of this scheme. Analytic, as a term means something akin to ‘taking apart’, which is what Kant attempts to do for the non-empirical component underlying of everyday experience. Another idiom of Kantian termology is that ‘deduction’ means something more akin to ‘demonstration’ or ‘proof’ of the items of Kant’s analysis. I note this because it is part of Kant’s critical philosophy to consist of an analytic to precede a deduction.

Kant establishes a few terms as part of his architecture. The Understanding contrasts to Intuition. Thought contrasts to Sensibility. The Understanding exists as an independent role from Sensibility.  An everyday perception would be the unity of the Understanding with the empirical component.

The Understanding

One feature of the Understanding is that it exists as an entirely independent entity from Sensibility, even though it co-opts with sensibility in the construction of everyday experience. A fundamental idea of the Understanding is that it is organised in a system. Because of Kant’s strict notion of the understanding of apriorism, he maintains that the understanding must form a system and the workings and relations of this system is discoverable a priori.

Logical features

To discover the workings of the fundamental aspects of this cognitive architecture, Kant essentially boils everyday perceptions idealised as propositions, to find the categorial features of what underlies them. In this way, it seems, Kant discovers the fundamental logical structure of the understanding. I’ve used the word ‘logical’ here, and I relate to my view (and Destre’s) understanding of what logical means.

It is in my view, as well as Destre, that the notion of ‘logical’ refers to what really means ‘categorial’, by categorial, I understand the fundamental aspects of reality which are so fundamental that they consist of constraints upon our understanding. It is for instance, the case that we understand terms as true or false, or even in between; we understand alethic modal terms, or other kinds of modes such as temporal terms or intentional terms. The one thing that unifies all formal logics is that they attempt to bank on a collection of fundamental categories. Alethic logic uses terms such as necessity; deontic logic pertains to intention while we might say that classical logic commits to the bivalence of the world being organised into true and false propositions. I consider this sense of ‘logical’ to be important because it is in my view that preseves a body of knowledge in a tradition spanning Aristotle to Frege, if we look at logic as a notion of the fundamental categoricity of reality, we subsume it as a form of metaphysics, and modern logic would continue as the ‘analytic’ of those terms.

The rule of three

One thing that really confuses me is that Kant organises the categories as a table, and each category has three branches. The table of elements is resoundingly similar to Aristotle’s categories and Kant acknowledges this. Kant considers Aristotle’s categories to be flawed however, where Aristotle elicits 10 categories, Kant expresses 12. Kant links the categories through distilling empirical linguistic claims and in doing so forms a table of judgments, these then have a more fundamental rooting on an isomorphic table of categories. The categories and judgements consist of genii: quality, quantity, relation and modality, within these are three specii.

What I find interesting about this table structure is that it exemplifies itself in some ways. The categories exemplify unity and plurality, Kant noted earlier in the Analytic, that unity is a fundamental idea to the understanding, but is it the most fundamental? Is it possible for instance, that one category precedes the structure in importance, or constrains it?

If we are to agree with this structure of the categories, it would essentially detail the structure in which we study metaphysics. Kant says that his intention of philosophy was to classify these notions but not to go much further with them. If we understand the archictecture of reality, there is still much more work within it to bring out its details. Another way to describe this is that we could say that Kant is creating a demarcation of subjects, in the same way that say, we understand the demarcation between pure and applied mathematics; astrophysics and microbiology, and even though we see their differences and appreciate why they are so fundamentally different, there is still much work to be done in the individual areas of pure mathematics, or microbiology. It is hardly the case that once we know the structure of reality or metaphysics through the table of categories, there is nothing more to be said about say, necessity or parthood, but what could be said by virtue of the table, is that those metaphysical features form part of a greater system.

With regard to the specific categories and judgments elicited in the table, I cannot get my head around the motivations for some of them. I would grant the importance of modality or perhaps quantity, but ‘relations’ could be realised in several other ways, and each particular branch should have, if we are to be convinced of this system, a description of why we should be motivated for the specific categorisation, instead of another one which may explain multiple categories all at once, the category of ‘community’ or ‘reciprocity between agent and patient’ seems the most arbitrary, and Kant does little to convince us of why this should be a category. Even if we accept Kant’s category scheme, there is a rational burden to convince us why each category should be considered on individual merits, instead of by its weight in place of the system.

Michael (following conversations with Destre)

[disclaimer: This was incredibly hard for me to read and more still to understand. My post serves as a set of notes for my own indulgence and hardly any definitive kind of reading, I am all very likely to change the way I’m reading Kant as I gain more insight or read it again and I do not assert this reading with any confidence at all, this chapter was a beast to read.]

Book Review: Arguably, by Christopher Hitchens

I have a penchant for big books. At the present moment, I’m trying to prepare for a very hard job assessment interview by reading a whole textbook on social research methods, at the same time I am reading a book by Anthony (‘AC’) Grayling which is also a large book, but according to the cover of the book (and the title), its not just a big book, it’s “The Good Book”, talk about self-publicity. Because I surround myself purposely with difficult things: big books; books on scientific method; books written by Adorno; black metal, or trying to learn badminton with a motor skills disability, I make an effort to lighten up my life from time to time. I enjoy a good laugh, I enjoy children’s literature, I act like a child. This is usually a way of making myself seem more accessible to people, if they really knew that I was thinking about the importance of despair, or whether Hermann Cohen and Ernst Cassirer uphold Kantian tradition, I don’t think people can really peer inside.

Why have I just written a paragraph about myself in what is titled a book review for Christopher Hitchens? It is my ode to the man. A good essay should start with a preamble, an academic essay should start with ‘In this essay I shall do x,y,z which relates to systematic concerns a,b,c’. Hitchens writes in the former style, for a man who reads things of the former. Hitchens is a man of diverse personality and immensely wide interests. Hitchens consistently writes in a personable manner and shows humour that is unexpected and pathos in things we so easily wish to forget.

Hitchens’ series of Essays in this publication, released earlier this year (perhaps the most ‘newest’ book I’ve read that’s worth blogging about), are on a variety of subjects, most are from various publications such as Vanity Fair, Slate Magazine and The Nation, and most are within the past decade. Many of the topics are contemporary, such as the use of words such as ‘like’ or ‘y’know’ which are filler words taking place in sentences. When I find Guardian Journalists such as Jess Cartner-Morley and politicians even as eminent as the Prime Minister using such filler sentences, I know that a cultural epidemic is taking place. A great essay is one which makes one so self conscious they look over their back, or in the mirror, to become more self aware. I personally am, like, y’know, trying to sort of, kinda get rid of, y’know, the filler words that I over use, really.

Hitchens should not be typified as one of the ‘Four Horsemen’, or the archetype of ‘New Atheists’. This would undermine the breadth of his work. Perhaps notably, few of his essays address the typical subjects he embraces in his public talks on the evils of religion or from his book ‘God is Not Great’. This is a good thing, it’s terrible to repeat your ideas (note to self, keep this one in mind). Hitchens reveals a more nuanced appreciation of the Arab world in this anthology, as he addresses many of his experiences in countries such as Tunisia, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. There is a level of liberalism and sophistication in many of these countries which is ignored by the mainstream media. Hitchens addresses the side effects of war through his book reviews on figures such as Rebecca West, events during the inter-war years, and a very powerful essay on the consequences of ‘Agent Orange’ in Vietnam. Hitchens addresses subjects of great gravitas, many of which are often ignored.

Some subjects couldn’t be more contemporary, One essay on the Eurozone crisis (written in 2010) may well have been written a fortnight ago. Hitchens addresses issues relating to EU diplomacy and tensions in this political communion. I tend to read the author as more British than American, but Hitchens is very apt at speaking from a US point of view as well. I forget (perhaps too easily) that Hitchens predominantly writes for a North American audience. Hitchens displays familiarity with many of the literary greats of the 20th Century, from his visit to see author V.S Naipaul, to a review on J.G. Ballard, as wll as his numerous allusions to Gore Vidal (a man who is often compared with Hitchens) and Martin Amis. Hitchens is a man with many famous friends. This is evidenced by an evend held this month at the London Southbank, which celebrated the life and work of Christopher Hitchens (Hitchens was set to attend but became suddenly unwell prior to the event).

One forgets too easily that Hitchens, before he became the fanboy object of many a ‘New Atheist’, was a journalist for his bread and butter, who observed on many foreign affairs. One theme prevalent in this anthology is the cultural role of a ‘hack’ in the modern world. Hitchens addresses the numerous views on how ‘inferior’ the journalist is in comparison to the historian, or the poet. Hitchens rightly points out how the public intellectual at least in perception, varies significantly from the journalist, yet despite the criticism to what is his bread-and-butter profession, Hitchens shows by example that one can be a journalist as well as an intellectual. I think that one day, Librivox will release an edition of Hitchens’ ‘Arguably’ and future people will see it in the same way I would see a collection of essays by George Orwell, another journalist of merit. It will be a work of historical importance, successfully capturing the zeitgeist of what was the Noughties generation; a baby-boomer and gen x, y generation; what life was like during the early internet age. Hitchens made art out of the internet newspaper, it may be true that online ‘publications’ are mostly full of things that will easily be forgotten over the decades, but buried in all that shit are a few gems of authorship. Gems such as the work of Christopher Hitchens.

The anthology was written, if I am to believe the introduction, at the urgency of keeping active. As many readers may know, Christopher Hitchens is enduring oesophageal cancer. Hitchens addresses his condition briefly and in his candour, admits that his writing and public engagements are the one thing that keep him going. Knowing that his death is immanent, it is as if he writes now (or perhaps better said, he reads now) as if her is already a dead man.

As a closing remark, I recommend anyone whether reading the book or not, who is not squeamish about matters sexual, to read the insightful, humourous and profoundly unusual essay ‘As American as Apple Pie’. To put it crudely, it’s about blowjobs.I can’t imagine George Orwell or Gore Vidal writing about such a subject!

Michael

The elephant in the room: Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s ‘Nomad’ (Review)

This month I have the task of doing a book review. I’ve chosen a book within the so-called ‘New Atheist’ canon, although labels aside, this is a fascinating and challenging book for all concerned. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a person of numerous identities, many of which hold awkwardly together, and this is the essence of the title of her book: Nomad.

Ali is a woman. As a woman, she faces multiple discriminations; from her father, who is interestingly the daughter of Hirsi Magan Isse, a Somali revolutionary; from her grandmother, whose distrust of modernity was interesting in spite of her own personal defiance by defying patriarchal customs of her time and from her own community who see her as betraying her heritage.

Ali is a secularist. By studying in school was a defiance enough for her family, Ali came to study political science and immersed herself and identified with the values of the European Enlightenment. Ali makes an interesting case for the universality of the enlightenment values: of freedom of expression and the erosion of religious influence on civic society. From her background not just as an Arab, but a woman from an Arabic culture, she turns the values of the 17th and 18thC Enlightenment to apply beyond Europe. For her criticism of Islam, such as the insular fear of modernity and its values to practices which involve violence against women, Ali raises something very uncomfortable and unsayalbe in this day and age. Consider for instance in the UK that Baroness Warsi recently stated that Islamophobia is rife, while many comedians are known to have a secret rule to avoid critique of the religion due to the historical repercussions of Salman Rushdie. Ali was the writer of Theo Van Gogh’s film ‘Submission’, a film for which Van Gogh was murdered.

Ali is not a ‘feminist’. So many are unwilling to critique Islam, perhaps for the fear of association with extremist right-wing politics or for the threats. This is a topic very sensitive but important. Ali refuses the title of ‘feminist’ despite raising the issue of women in the Arab world, as well as the double oppression Arab women face when emigrating to the west with the pressure to conform to old cultural standards against their pressure to distance themselves from integrating with the society. Integrating to a a country once emigrating is often an issue for minority groups and it shows the many facets of the cultural diaspora that is contemporary Islam. Ali challenges so-called identifying feminists because ‘many’ (only one I recall was named – Germaine Greer) refused to critique Muslim country customs on the basis to the effect of  ‘we cannot judge other countries by our cultural standards’. That alone raises at least two or three distinct questions internal to a feminist discussion. For Ali, these issues for the women she describes are not so much a feminist issue, but a human rights issue.

Ali is a modern woman. Perhaps the end of the book shows how sympathetic Ali is to her late grandmother, who despite her defiance, did not approve of her granddaughter’s life. Ali describes how Somalia irrevocably changed once western innovations and modernity were introduced, electricity for instance, and new ways of thinking, and new ways of killing. For better and for worse, the innovations that modernity brought could not be reversed. Ali’s grandmother was a nomad who was forcibly married off to a man who left her for another woman, despite this she maintained her personal integrity within the confines of her patriarchy of the time. Ali describes her grandmother as a more successful matriarch keeping the clan in checkcompared to the woman her grandfather replaced her with, who, while the latter provided him with boys (a favoured gender in tribal society), was poor at other domestic duties. Ali sees the strength of her grandmother and those of many other women around her in the trials of everyday life. It is Ali’s conviction, as it is for many others, such as Nussbaum, that a key feature for social development in many countries involves providing more education and social mobility to women especially in their traditional caregiver roles of their society. While recognising this, Ali fights a battle of many fronts, from the dangerous public criticisms of Islam, both from the social othodoxy and her family’s ostracism of her; to the indifference of liberal intellectuals and so-called feminists who turn a blind eye. Ali shows herself as a Nomad of many fronts.

Antisophie