20 July 2008

Digital Books

In this month’s Esquire there is the following funny bit in the The Vocabulary section, “bookshelf: a soon-to-be archaic piece of furniture upon which a book is placed after being read.” (19).

Puhleeze. This is the ultimate in pretension. Everyone knows the bookshelf is there not to hold the books after being read but instead the ones that have yet to be read. Books that have been read are shipped off to a used bookstore. At least for most people.

When people visit me or The Girl they are always amazed by the collection (size and content) on the bookshelf. Interestingly enough I have read many of them, but even a prodigious reader like myself has many books displayed that have yet to be read. In fact, I would contend that the avid reader actually more bookshelf on unread than read books.

Anywho, all this is to say that the digital age will not replace the book. Even if (some) people did not find reading a book preferable to the digital version, the image of the book contains a social currency that cannot be captured by a digital device. Similar to the framed degree displayed on the wall.

07 July 2008

John Brown, Abolitionist by David S. Reynolds

I have started a new nighttime book. I have two books being read at any time, one is serious and usually boring, Zizek’s In Defense of Lost Causes, and then the nighttime book is more fluff. For a long time I have been interested in John Brown and my curiosity has been piqued by its predominance in the new Zizek book. So here I am with John Brown, Abolitionist by David S. Reynolds.

The first nineteen pages are about Brown’s ancestors and a brief (so far it is brief, but still engaged) sketch of Puritanism and abolitionist development. So far the book follows Reynolds’ method of inquiry, but on page 19 he reaches the question of inquiry: “How could Puritanism fuse with antislavery passion with such intensity in John Brown that he believed he could single-handedly free America’s 4 million slaves?’ (19). This is a disappointing question. Has Reynolds forgotten his own discussion about Puritanism?

Puritanism is less about making the world better, although they do strive for it, but more about a complete devotion to an ideal. It is akin to Kant’s categorical imperative, less about the end and more about how to be devoted to the end. (Zizek 2008, 225) If John Brown had been asked this question, I am willing to put money that he was and that the answer is recorded somewhere, I predict his answer would have been quick, short and unwavering: “You tell the one slave I did free that it was all for naught because slavery still exists.”

For another example of this lack of analysis we can look back to page 7.
Although after the raid he was first denounced by most Northerners, a few influential individuals, especially the Transcendentalists, salvaged his reputation by placing him on the level of Christ – a notable misreading of a man who, despite his remarkable virtues, had violent excesses [emphasis mine], as evidenced by the nighttime slaughter of five proslavery residents he had directed in Pottawatomie, Kansas.
I have no problem with Reynolds making a normative assessment of the slaughter, but to call it an excess requires more work. I do hold out the possibility that the work is done later and this reference is merely a foreshadow (page 7, after all), but until I come across that effort I will launch the following criticism. Where is the line demarcating acceptable and unacceptable violence against the slavery advocates? Why should we even care about Reynolds’ theory: Brown believed in a rigorous system of retribution. Were his actions even consistent within his own framework? Or were his actions akin to a violent G8 protest, often conducted by young people merely looking to break stuff.

The book is already predicated upon a belief in comparing alternatives rather than a faith. This cynicism of Reynolds makes me uncomfortable as I wonder about his ability to relate Brown’s thoughts anywhere close to accurately if he cannot even grasp that questions of efficacy were irrelevant to Brown when the matter was one of absolute right and wrong.

Despite this, I find the book engaging and well written. There is more here than I had expected and I am excited to see what else Reynolds will educate me about that I was not expecting.

01 July 2008

On law, Deadwood and Palahniuk

These days I am making my way through season 1 of Deadwood. I am only on episode 5 and I must, literally ‘must’ as I do not want to admit it, say that I am hooked. Ian McShane is marvelous and I think he alone would make the show worthwhile watching. Another thing I really like about the show is its ambition. They speak of the show as depicting (actually, they speak in realist terms as though the show was really Deadwood, South Dakota and not a depiction) a lacuna of Law. The commentary with the show’s creator David Milch, however, shows us that he has a more realistic assessment: the show is not about an absence of Law but rather of the absence of law, attempting to cast the show as a study in other mechanisms of sociality. Too bad the show-sans-commentary does not impart this; the commentary is needed to realize the stated ambition of Deadwood is founded in a hubris.

I finished watching the episode where Jack McCall is tried for Hickcock’s murder and the in-show commentary, delivered by Ian McShane’s character, is wrong. The trial did not mark the introduction of law into Deadwood, precisely because everyone knew the law and civility of the trial was, like its outcome, a sham. What the show did was to show that Deadwood is not a lacuna of the law but that all of the US was lawless. Instead of the law there is only a mask of the law. Zizek sums it up better than I do (keep in mind that Carnivale was another HBO show):

[T]he logic of the social carnival brought to the extreme of self-reflexion: anarchist outbursts are not a transgression of Law and Order; in our societies, anarchism already is in power wearing the mask of Law and Order – our Justice is the travesty of Justice, the spectacle of Law and Order is an obscene carnival (Zizek 2008, 192)

In a strange coincidence (I should not be surprised to find an articulation between Palahniuk and Zizek) I am working on the new Palahniuk book and it is - I am only about a third of the way through the book so this my thoughts may change - also about this mask. At the moment I am meeting the characters as they speak about Cassie. What is interesting is that the characters are in a waiting room bidding time for their chance to be with Cassie, and Palahniuk has yet to introduce me to Cassie. Will he? Is Cassie a transcendental in the book? None of the characters think of her as a transcendental, they all have plans to affect her. But at the same time they all dismiss the others as in-affective, reaffirming her transcendental condition. Does Cassie even exist? Is she instead some mask, some fantasmic inflatable sex doll lifelessly willing to receive their intrusions?

I am not sure where Palahniuk will go with this, but there will be drama and action in the waiting room among the characters, and Cassie, the supposed structuring principle of the story, will be revealed to be an ineffective structuring agent.