A Neoliberalism Reading List

(Re)reading from first to last, as I have recently, Michel Houellebecq’s entire body of translated work leaves me in little doubt that he is the only novelist in the west truly capturing the pernicious effects on individuals living through this latest manifestation of capitalism, a neoliberalism whose influence reaches deep into notions of individualism and identity.

Carole Sweeney’s reading list below is as good as any I’ve seen on the history of capitalism in the twentieth century, and most particularly on the rise of neoliberalism. I’ve read some of these and plan to read the others, and welcome any other reading suggestions along similar lines.

  • Luc Boltanski, Ève Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism
  • Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power and the Origins of our Times
  • Krishnan Kumar, From Post-Industrial to Post-Modern Society: New Theories of the Contemporary World
  • Ash Amin, Post-Fordism: A Reader
  • David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism
  • Gilles Lipovetsky, Hypermodern Times
  • Paolo Virno, Michael Hardt, Radical Thought in Italy
  • Zygmunt Bauman, Globalization: The Human Consequences
  • Susan Strange, The Retreat of the State: The Diffusion of Power
  • Henry Giroux, Against the Terror of Neoliberalism: Politics Beyond the Age of Greed
  • The Stupor of Power

    It is hard, perhaps impossible, not to be cynical about politicians. Our institutions have singularly failed us, repeatedly. As the man credited with the title of first anarchist, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, wrote:

    To be ruled is to be kept an eye on, inspected, spied on, regulated, indoctrinated, sermonised, listed and checked-off, estimated, appraised, censured, ordered about, by creatures without knowledge and without virtues. To be ruled is, at every operation, transaction, movement, to be noted, registered, counted, priced, admonished, prevented, reformed, redressed, corrected. It is, on the pretext of public utility and in the name of the common good, to be put under contribution, exercised, held to ransom, exploited, monopolised, concussed, pressured, mystified,
    robbed; then, at the least resistance and at the first hint of complaint, repressed, fined, vilified, vexed, hunted, exasperated, knocked-down, disarmed, garroted, imprisoned, shot, grape-shot, judged, condemned, deported, sacrificed, sold, tricked; and to finish off with, hoaxed, calumniated, dishonoured. Such is government! And to think that there are democrats among us who claim there’s some good in government!

    Such a statement must have seemed overly dramatic in 19th-century France, but is there anybody now that would not recognise much that is familiar in the governments of the 21st-century?

    This isn’t a political blog (though everything is political). Reading JM Coetzee sent me flicking through my anarchist notebooks for context. In Age of Iron, Coetzee’s narrator writes of the South African administration but it applies to any:

    The parade of politicians every evening: I have only to see the heavy, blank faces so familiar since childhood to feel gloom and nausea. The bullies in the last row of school-desks, raw-boned, lumpish boys, grown up now and promoted to rule the land. They with their mothers and fathers, their aunts and uncles, their brothers and sisters: a locust horde, a plague of black locusts infesting the country, munching without cease, devouring lives. Why, in a spirit of horror and loathing, do I watch them? [..] Legitimacy they no longer trouble to claim. Reason they have shrugged off. What absorbs them is power and the stupor of power.

    Links of the Week

    Many of these links have been tweeted in the past, but here I can tag and categorise them for future reference. I hope you find some of them interesting too. Please feel free to discuss in comments or on Twitter. Some of the links to PDFs change or disappear, so if something interests you download it quickly.

    Kathy Acker

    Kathy Acker

    I came across Kathy Acker’s work while pursuing my passion for all things Patti Smith. Smith and Acker (and Mapplethorpe) were close friends. The Language of The Body is central to Acker’s extraordinary body of work.

    Djuna Barnes chapbook The Book of Repulsive Women [PDF] collects eight poems and five drawings. It is more a curiosity than one of Barnes’s finest works, she came to view it as an embarrassment.

    I’ve not deeply read Giorgio Agamben’s work yet, but from my first study expect to find his work in accord with philosophy as a form of life. The Man Without Content [PDF] looks difficult, but as far as I can tell contends that before the 20th century art was more essential to people than it is today.

    Written by David Miller, this Very Short Introduction to Political Philosophy [PDF] successfully summarise the main arguments of a huge subject. As Miller writes, political philosophy is “an investigation into the nature, causes, and effects of good and bad government.” As always with this series, the Further Reading section is invaluable.

    Colin Ward was Britain’s greatest contributor to the much misunderstood political philosophy of anarchism. I consider his Very Short Introduction to Anarchism [PDF] required reading for anyone that realises no government is ever going to offer tolerable administration.

    Nicholas Royle, co-writer of my favourite theory primer: An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory, wrote What is Deconstruction? [PDF] as a letter to the editors of the Chambers Dictionary in disgust at its treatment, in 1998, of the word ‘deconstruction.’ The letter is not only funny but gets close to a working definition.

    Derrida’s Letter to a Japanese Friend [PDF] is the closest that Derrida got to providing a comprehensible definition of the word ‘deconstruction.’

    Though Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is not one of my favourite Derrida disciples, her treatment of post-colonialism is exceptional, particularly her development of the concept of subaltern. The Critical Thinkers guide [PDF] is a superb introduction to Spivak’s interests.

    Late Lyotard [PDF] presents Derridean scholar Geoffery Bennington’s presentation of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s late themes.

    Crass, formed by Penny Rimbaud and Steve Ignorant, were my band, my introduction into the circle of South London punks who adopted me in the early eighties.

    Thought Control and Cynicism

    It’s one of those glorious early spring days that England enacts so well. I have sat in the garden, drinking black tea, and reading Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception. I’ve been preoccupied with this text for the past three years or so. This is the fourth time I’ve read this chapter of the book Dialectic of Enlightenment, which I’ve yet to read from cover to cover.

    This particular chapter performs Morpheus’s red pill in The Matrix. “You take the red pill,” he says to Neo, “and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” Jason Barker extends the same metaphor to his film Marx Reloaded, where Leon Trotsky, playing Morpheus, offers the choice of blue or red pill to Karl Marx as Neo.

    Adorno and Horkheimer’s text is not without inadequacies. It is important to recall the socioeconomic context. Written in the early 1940s by two ethnically Jewish, German émigrés in the aftermath of the war, the dourness of their moral outrage is to be expected. In short (and I recommend you read the essay), Horkheimer and Adorno’s essay is trying to reawaken people from the mind-dulling consequences of the modern culture industry, an argument even more relevant today than in the 1940s.

    Importantly, Adorno and Horkenheimer’s essay is not an attack on consumers but on the producers of banal, repetitive cultural goods – films, books, music, magazines – calibrated to obviate the necessity of mental effort and independent thought. The result is a passive audience caught up in a loop of endless consumption. For what end? Horkheimer and Adorno argue that this “entertainment” distracts us from the dehumanizing nature of most forms of modern work, and engenders a cynicism that deadens our political will to overcome a decadent and exploitative socioeconomic system.

    Why do its consumers lap up the banal nonsense offered as art and entertainment? Instead of objecting they fetishize it. Witness the mindlessness of today’s fixation on celebrity. It would come as no surprise to Horkheimer and Adorno that a supposedly enlightened society has returned to the fetish. The brilliant part of their argument is that it is precisely the repeated exposure to forms of entertainment (they pick the American film industry) that repeatedly excite and manipulate the senses to deaden them (Deleuze, if I understand correctly, also writes of the dulling effect of “bare repetition”). Consumers are enrolled in their own pacification.

    There is so much more I could ramble on about from this essay. The last point that I wish to extract from Adorno and Horkheimer’s essay is about cynicism, which like many “advanced” moderns is an attitude I once bore with pride, believing it an appropriate ethical choice. Horkheimer and Adorno demystify and denounce this cynicism, itself a manipulated effect of the culture industry:

    In this age of universal publicity any invocation of an ideal appears suspect to us. We have learned how to identify abstract concepts as sales propaganda. Language based entirely on truth simply arouses impatience to get on with the business deal it is probably advancing.

    Horkheimer and Adorno close their essay, noting that rampant cynicism about popular culture and commodification does not obstruct its consumption. Consumers acknowledge its manipulative intent and yet take part, which is the systematic “beauty” of the cultural model. But the cynicism that is engendered supports complacency, reducing expectations of the state, of media, of business, and diminishes political will to mobilise against injustices. As Horkheimer and Adorno saw only too well in the years leading up to this essay, cynicism-induced complacency plays into the hands of right-wing agendas.

    (Images: a fragment from Ingres’s Oedipe et le sphinx, a screen grab from Marx Reloaded and Adorno and Horkheimer.)

    Links of the Week

    Many of these links have been tweeted in the past, but here I can tag and categorise them for future reference. I hope you find some of them interesting too. Please feel free to discuss in comments or on Twitter. Some of the links to PDFs disappear quickly so download them promptly.

    'The Reader' - G. Richter

    ‘The Reader’ – G. Richter

    Dr. B or : How I learned to stop worrying and love cinema post: The Gaze and its psychoanalytical implications in Richter, Graham and Beckett’s art.

    Faust Series Opus 9 post: 13 Tips for a Writing Friend (After Benjamin, Baudelaire etc.)

    Judith Butler’s Undoing Gender (2004) [Full- PDF] -”recent reflections on gender and sexuality, focusing on new kinship, psychoanalysis and the incest taboo, transgender, intersex, diagnostic categories, social violence, and the tasks of social transformation.”

    This is treasure for me, discovering a trove of Guy Debord’s letters. “Although I have read a lot, I have drunk even more.”

    Bookslut reviews Viktor Shklovsky’s A Hunt for Optimism:

    It lacks so much that readers generally gravitate to that even Shklovsky’s clinical prose can seem like an obstruction. But those that can tolerate the writer’s embracing of polyphony and multiplicity will undoubtedly see that there is a very serious mind at work.

    These three interpretations of Charles Bukowski’s Melancholy are intriguing. My preference is for the first performance.

    Salon’s review of James Wood’s The Fun Stuff. Enjoyed the review though I’ve no urge, presently, to buy the book despite enjoying much of Wood’s writing.

    Full Stop’s review of Suzanne Scanlon’s Promising Young Women, which I expect to read some day:

    This is the brilliance of Suzanne Scanlon’s debut: by casting Lizzie as a self-aware cipher in conflict with the critical reader, Scanlon refuses the same act of diagnosis that her novel critiques.

    A collection of films inspired by Angela Carter, exploring the gothic, mysterious and magical themes of her work.

    Three-part documentary about Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Indonesian writer of the staggeringly good The Buru Quartet.

    Green and yellow: the colours of Brazilian Modernism.

    Twenty years on, Elaine Showalter’s revised introduction to A Literature of Their Own. [PDF]

    Leszek Kolakowski’s The Death of Utopia Revisited (1982).[PDF]

    JM Coetzee on the novels of Saul Bellow.

    Women on the market by Luce Irigaray (“applies Marx’s analysis of the commodity to the status of women – objects circulated by men to reproduce a male-dominated society.”)

    Ethnocentric Criticism

    Before (or after) reading my scattered musings in this post I’d urge you, if you haven’t read it before, to give your attention to Aijaz Ahmad’s essay entitled Jameson’s Rhetoric of Otherness and the “National Allegory”. Written in 1987 it is somewhat dated, and bears a tedious title. That aside, it is a surgical and incisive demolition of the concept of ‘third-world literature,’ and much of academic postcolonial theory.

    I shall argue, therefore, that there is no such thing as a “third-world literature” which can be constructed as an internally coherent object of theoretical knowledge. There are fundamental issues-of periodisation, social and linguistic formations, political and ideological struggles within the field of literary production, and so on-which simply cannot be resolved at this level of generality without an altogether positivist reductionism.

    Ahmad develops his argument to challenge the Three Worlds Theory, or at least Jameson’s conception of the theory. (It is here that the outdated part of the essay is most obvious, in the use of ‘Second World’ to mean socialist countries.) Nevertheless his argument is illuminating.

    Elsewhere Ahmad has written (and hints in this essay), about the tendency of the élite or relatively upper class writers and philosophers from developing nations to be raised to canonical status in the West, simply as they are afforded more opportunity and access. Those from a working class background tend to go untranslated or unpublished.

    Not, of course, that this is problem only for developing nations. Pierre Bourdieu is his “not-autobiography” Sketch for Self-Analysis contrasts the status (and volume of published work, secondary criticism etc.) of Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault, both from wealthy and privileged backgrounds, with Georges Canguilhem (as a young boarder he didn’t know what wash-basins were for) and by insinuation himself.

    Inequality and Objectification

    Quote

    Marx claimed that from the sexual relationship “one can . . .  judge man’s whole level of development  . . . the relationship of man to woman is the most natural relation of human being to human being. It therefore reveals the extent to which man’s natural behaviour has become human.”

    From Bertell Ollman’s introduction to Wilhelm Reich: Sex-Essays, 1929-1934

    Links of the Week

    Many of these links have been tweeted in the past, but here I can tag and categorise them for future reference. I hope you find some of them interesting too. Please feel free to discuss in comments or on Twitter.

    The term ‘mansplaining’ is genius and deserves to be listed in the OED. This is where I first came across the term.

    Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror, Essay on Abjection.

    Martha Nussbaum – How to write about poverty.

    The Myth of Matriarchy: Why Men Rule in Primitive Society by Joan Bamberger.

    Politics and the English Language an essay by George Orwell.

    Charles Bukowski’s so you want to be a writer.

    The David Lynch mixtape.

    Franz Kafka: The Meaning of Life is that it Stops.

    Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker and the surprising physical reality of this world as he sees it.

    The ideal way to read Marx’s Kapital is with David Harvey.

    One of my favourite Desert Island Discs with writer Al Alvarez (friend of Plath and Hughes).

    On Fear – a wonderful essay by Mary Ruefle (the distinction between emotion and feeling is perfect)

    Julia Kristeva’s essay – A Freudian Approach: The Pre-religious Need To Believe.

    Adam Kirsch on The New World of William Carlos Williams.

    Italo Calvino’s 14 Definitions of What Makes a Classic.

    Links of the Week

    Many of these links have been tweeted in the past, but here I can tag and categorise them for future reference. I hope you find some of them interesting too. Please feel free to discuss in comments or on Twitter.

    Understanding Patriarchy – stunning, important essay by bell hooks. [PDF]

    French and Saunders’ Ingmar Bergman parody.

    From the BBC archives, Iris Murdoch discusses the artistic conflict between freedom and form.

    The definitive Nabokov bibliography blog.

    Semiotics for Beginners: Intertextuality by Daniel Chandler.

    Samir Amin’s review of Wallerstein’s Modern World System: The Rise and Decline of Liberalism.

    Excerpts from Daniil Kharms’s Blue Notebook.

    The Situationist International Text Library/The Revolution of Everyday Life (full text).

    Wonderful interview (video) with Nadezhda Mandelstam.

    Congruence in the work of Ozu and Hopper.

    Christopher Beha talks about avoiding the traps of first novels in What Happened to Sophie Wilder.

    Full critical, digital edition of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759).

    “Destroyed, stolen, rejected, erased, ephemeral.” Gallery of Lost Art.