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
  • What We Once Knew As Life

    I suspect that Houellebecq and Adorno would’ve enjoyed a bottle of wine together, grumbling together about the invasion of market relations into every corner of human existence.

    What the philosophers once knew as life has become the sphere of private existence and now of mere consumption, dragged along as an appendage of the process of material production, without autonomy or substance of its own.

    Theodor Adorno
    Minima Moralia

    Traces of Individuality

    It is wrong to pretend that human beings are unique, that they carry within them an irreplaceable individuality; as far as I was concerned, at any rate, I could not distinguish any trace of such an individuality. As often as not it is futile to wear yourself out trying to distinguish individual destinies and personalities. When all’s said and done, the idea of the uniqueness of the individual is nothing more than pompous absurdity. We remember our own lives, Schopenhauer wrote somewhere, a little better than a novel we once read. That’s about right: a little, no more.

    Michel Houellebecq

    Idées Fixes of the Week

    Girl in a Blanket (1953) Lucian Freud

    Freud’s captivating Girl in a Blanket appears on the front cover of Henrietta Moraes’ memoir, Henrietta, which I have sampled in small doses alongside Colin Wilson’s Adrift in Soho. I’m fascinated with the louche, hedonistic Soho that stretched between the beat and post-hippie eras. (Moraes called the unfinished sequel to her memoir Fuck Off Darling, which is of course just perfect) Nothing of the Bohemian lifestyle that Moraes and her milieu lived could be tolerated in our age of surveillance, net curtain twitching and consumerism as economic ideology.

    I suspect that Michel Houellebecq would’ve fitted neatly in with Morae’s crowd. They would have appreciated his Beckettian mirthless humour, the finest, or at least healthiest, antidote to nihilism. My rereading of Houellebecq’s oeuvre continues, impeded only by my return to wage-orientated labour after four blissful months of reading, travel, navel gazing and walking.

    Briefly but intensely compelled to dip into Angela Carter’s work last week, nagged during an insomniac night with echoes of her highly wrought style in the depiction of sexuality in Houellebecq. There are surely broad similarities in the caustic and subversive humour of both writers. I am overdue an immersion once again in Carter’s work.

    Rilke’s Inspiration

    Family of Saltimbanques (1905) - Pablo Picasso)

    Family of Saltimbanques (1905) – Pablo Picasso)

    Duino Elegies

      The Fifth Elegy

    But who are they, tell me, these Travellers, even more
    transient than we are ourselves, urgently, from their earliest days,
    wrung out for whom – to please whom,
    by a never-satisfied will? Yet it wrings them,
    bends them, twists them, and swings them,
    throws them, and catches them again: as if from oiled
    more slippery air, so they land
    on the threadbare carpet, worn by their continual
    leaping, this carpet
    lost in the universe.
    Stuck on like a plaster, as if the suburban
    sky had wounded the earth there.
    And scarcely there,
    upright, there and revealed: the great
    capital letter of Being………and already the ever-returning
    grasp wrings the strongest of men again, in jest,
    as King August the Strong would crush
    a tin plate.

    Ah, and around this
    centre, the rose of watching
    flowers and un-flowers. Round this
    stamp, this pistil, caught in the pollen
    of its own flowering, fertilised
    again to a shadow-fruit of disinterest,
    their never-conscious, seeming-to-smile, disinterest,
    gleaming lightly, on surface thinness.

    There, the withered, wrinkled lifter,
    an old man, only a drummer now,
    shrunk in his massive hide, as though it had once
    contained two men, and one was already
    lying there in the churchyard, and the other had survived him,
    deaf, and sometimes a little
    confused in his widowed skin.

    And the young one, the man, as if he were son of a neck
    and a nun: taut and erectly filled
    with muscle and simple-mindedness.

    O you,
    that a sorrow, that was still small,
    once received as a plaything, in one of its
    long convalescences……

    You, who fall, with the thud
    that only fruit knows, unripe,
    a hundred times a day from the tree of mutually
    built-up movement (that, swifter than water,
    in a few moments, shows spring, summer and autumn),
    fall, and impact on the grave:
    sometimes, in half-pauses, a loving look tries
    to rise from your face towards your seldom
    affectionate mother: but it loses itself in your body,
    whose surface consumes the shy
    scarcely-attempted look…..And again
    the man is clapping his hands for your leap, and before
    a pain can become more distinct, close to your
    constantly racing heart, a burning grows in the soles of your feet,
    its source, before a few quick tears rush bodily into your eyes.
    And yet, blindly,
    that smile……..

    Angel! O, gather it, pluck it, that small-flowered healing herb.
    Make a vase, keep it safe! Place it among those joys not yet
    open to us: on a lovely urn,
    praise it, with flowery, swirling, inscription:
    ‘Subrisio Saltat: the Saltimbanque’s smile’
    You, then, beloved,
    you, that the loveliest delights
    silently over-leapt. Perhaps
    your frills are happy for you –
    or the green metallic silk,
    over your firm young breasts,
    feels itself endlessly pampered, and needing nothing.
    You, market fruit of serenity
    laid out, endlessly, on all the quivering balance scales,
    publicly, beneath the shoulders.

    Where, oh where is the place – I carry it in my heart –
    where they were still far from capable, still fell away
    from each other, like coupling animals, not yet
    ready for pairing: -
    where the weights are still heavy:
    where the plates still topple
    from their vainly twirling

    And, suddenly, in this troublesome nowhere, suddenly,
    the unsayable point where the pure too-little
    is changed incomprehensibly -, altered
    into that empty too-much.
    Where the many-placed calculation
    is exactly resolved.

    Squares: O square in Paris, endless show-place,
    where the milliner, Madame Lamort,
    winds and twists the restless trails of the earth,
    endless ribbons, into new
    bows, frills, flowers, rosettes, artificial fruits – all
    falsely coloured, – for winter’s
    cheap hats of destiny.

    Angel: if there were a place we know nothing of, and there,
    on some unsayable carpet, lovers revealed
    what here they could never master, their high daring
    figures of heart’s flight,
    their towers of desire, their ladders,
    long since standing where there was no ground, leaning,
    trembling, on each other – and mastered them,
    in front of the circle of watchers, the countless, soundless dead:
    Would these not fling their last, ever-saved,
    ever-hidden, unknown to us, eternally
    valid coins of happiness in front of the finally
    truly smiling pair on the silent

    Gentle Resignation

    It doesn’t amount to much, generally speaking, a human life; it can be summed up in a small number of events …

    Fortunate today to have been able to spend several hours reading Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory and though I’ve got another eighty or so pages to go, it seems clear that this is his major work to date. The twelve years that separate it from Atomised (The Elementary Articles) are evident in the fully realised characters, and the maturity of its metaphysics. I may write a little more about it when finished, but I am inclined to go back and reread the earlier works. This is a drive-by posting to drop off a couple of quotes that resonated.

    Olga loved him, he repeated to himself with a growing sadness as he also realised that nothing would ever happen between them again; life sometimes offers you a chance, he thought, but when you are too cowardly or too indecisive to seize it life takes the cards away; there is a moment for doing things and entering a possible happiness, and this moment lasts a few days, sometimes even a few weeks or even a few months, but it only happens once and one time only, and if you want to return to it later it’s quite simply impossible. There’s no place for enthusiasm, belief and faith, and there remains just gentle resignation, a sad and reciprocal pity, the useless but correct sensation that something could have happened, that you just simply showed yourself unworthy of this gift you had been offered.

    All That Exists is Egotism

    Few beings have ever been so impregnated, pierced to the core, by the conviction of the absolute futility of human aspiration. The universe is nothing but a furtive arrangement of elementary particles. A figure in transition toward chaos. That is what will finally prevail. The human race will disappear. Other races in turn will appear and disappear. The skies will be glacial and empty, traversed by the feeble light of half-dead stars. These too will disappear. Everything will disappear. And human actions are as free and as stripped of meaning as the unfettered movements of the elementary particles. Good, evil, morality, sentiments? Pure ‘Victorian fictions.’ All that exists is egotism. Cold, intact, and radiant.

    Michel Houellebecq
    H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life

    In an odd way, summarising Michel Houellebecq’s work as a series of (mesmerising) quotes affirms the significance of his worldview-and the appeal of his nihilism for me-in a way that gets a little lost when I engage with each work on its own.

    I hadn’t intended to read Houellebecq’s Lovecraft book, but these quotes propel it to my essential reading list. At the moment I’m reading The Map and the Territory for the first time, which I’d been saving as my only unread Houellebecq fiction, or so I thought but somehow Lanzarote escaped my attention. Did I read somewhere that Houellebecq intends to stop writing fiction? At some point I must read the BHL engagement, and then perhaps reread Houellebecq from the beginning.

    Art: Indispensability


    The more our daily life appears standardised, stereotyped, and subject to an accelerated reproduction of objects of consumption, the more art must be injected into it in order to extract from it that little difference which plays simultaneously between other levels of repetition, and even in order to make the two extremes resonate—namely, the habitual series of consumption and the instinctual series of destruction and death.

    Gilles Deleuze
    Difference and Repetition

    Reading Alix’s Journal

    There is a voyeuristic aspect to reading journals and diaries, a suggestion of breaching someone’s privacy, eavesdropping on supposedly private thoughts. In the case of published diaries, particularly those read as literary texts, this encroachment is neutralised with the knowledge that the writer intended their publication.

    This raises the question of a diary’s ‘authenticity,’ whether by virtue of being presented as literature, experiences are created, or revised for the benefit of a future audience. Genre authenticity is also directly linked to psychological aspects, whether we can ever know ourselves well enough to render our lives accurately in writing. My general practise is consider all diaries and autobiographical works as partially fictive with a well-meaning (usually) but ultimately unreliable narrator.

    It is not entirely clear in the case of Alix Cléo Roubaud whether she intended her journal for publication. In a poignant introduction, poet and mathematician Jacques Roubaud, writes, “I knew of her journal’s existence, but I had not opened it while she was alive.” After Alix’s death, Jacques was left all her writing and photographs, “to do with as I would deem necessary.” This edition reproduces her photographs to go with he moments when she writes of them.

    It is the intertwining of Alix’s photographs and words that carve out the depth of intimacy, truth and beauty within Alix’s Journal. The reader is situated squarely as voyeur in the space between Alix and Jacques Roubaud. The discomfort that this situation illicits, and the combination of literary and philosophical reflections with the insignificant details and concerns that attach to all our realities, make Alix’s Journal a uniquely exquisite reading experience.

    Following two readings of Alix’s Journal with the discovery and viewing on YouTube of Jean Eustache’s short film Les Photo’s d’Alix was almost unbearably moving.

    Reading Marcus Aurelius

    What I like about Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is their immediacy. My well-thumbed Gregory Hays translation serves a spiritual function. If perplexed I can open a page, and usually find a suitable meditation to contemplate, to think through a particular problem. If nothing else, Marcus (I’ve known the emperor-philosopher long enough that we are on first name terms) is good company when I’m too tired to concentrate on a new book.

    When I allow my copy to fall open it is to the following list of eight kephalaia, or points, which serve as a broad announcement of all Marcus’ themes, and function as a reminder of the essential core of Stoicism:

    To be angry at something means you’ve forgotten:

    1. That everything that happens is natural.
    2. That the responsibility is theirs, not yours.
    3. And further … that whatever happens has always happened, and always will, and is happening at this very moment, everywhere. Just like this.
    4. What links one human being to all humans: not blood, or birth, but mind [intellect].

    And …

    1. That an individual’s mind is God and of God.
    2. That nothing belongs to anyone. Children, body, life itself-all of them come from that same source.
    3. That it’s all how you choose to see things.
    4. That the present is all we have to live in. Or to lose.

    In his book on Aurelius, Pierre Hadot connects these to the fundamental dogmas of Stoicism:

    From the absolute primary principle according to which the only good is moral good and the only evil is moral evil, it follows that neither pleasure nor pain are evils; that the only thing shameful is moral evil; that faults committed against us cannot touch us; that he who commits a fault hurts only himself; and that the fault cannot be found elsewhere than within oneself. It further follows that I can suffer no harm from the actions of anyone else.