Thursday, January 17, 2013

Book Triad: Fun Fiction and Hard Theory

What time is it? It is book review time.

Today, we'll be looking at

Genealogy and Ontology of the Western Image and Its Digital Future by John Lechte
Galactic Pot-Healer by Philip K. Dick
Gothic Contemporaries: The Haunted Text by Joanne Watkiss

Reviews after the break.

Genealogy and Ontology of the Western Image and Its Digital Future.  This book is possibly the most difficult thing I've read in quite some time. And considering that my reading record for the last year contains a lot of rather heavy philosophy, that's really saying something. Lechte divides this book into two parts: the first half is a history of the Western image, as a concept and an object, and everything else it's been considered as over the past two thousand years. The second half applies this consideration to modern image issues, particularly the notion of digital art. On that subject, Lechte argues that, currently, digital art treats aesthetics as equivalent to the experimental method that lead to its creation, but, in accordance with a better definition of the image, he thinks that it is necessary to redefine aesthetics closer to its transcendental roots. (I think. As I said, it's a rather difficult book.) The early chapters are divided largely into periods: the Image in Plato and the Greek World, the Byzantine Image, the Renaissance Image, Image in 18th century, and the 19th century and early 20th century industrial image. The second part is a little more varied, with chapters on modern conceptions of the image in general (mostly Sartre and Crowther), Barthes and Benjamin on the photographic image and time (with a heavy backing from Bernard Stiegler), a chapter on beauty in digital art and Kant and Nietzche, and a final chapter briefly considering Deleuze's stance on the time-image. It covers a lot of rather obtuse theory; in addition to those I've mentioned, there's also Aristotle, Derrida, Kristeva, Hume, Diderot, Rousseau, Lacan, Mark Hansen, Foucault... the book really assumes you have a lot of knowledge going into it. I generally knew a little about everyone, but I was still rather lost at times. It could definitely use some expansion, just to give its arguments a little more breathing room.

Galactic Pot-Healer. While not one of Dick's better known books (probably for good reason), Galactic Pot-Healer still has some interesting elements that, in combination with its relatively short length, make it worth reading. The plot starts off simply enough; set in the future, Joe Fernwright is a pot-healer from a family of pot-healers, a popular profession after a war in the distant past shattered most of our the world's pottery. The problem is, after generations, most pots are fixed, and he's faced with a deep existential angst in the middle of a society that doesn't seem to have a place for him any more, and doesn't much care either. I think that’s a story that relates well to what a lot of people feel in modern society, pot-healing or not. And then, just when he’s at his worse, a manifestation of Glimmung, an immensely powerful alien from another world invites him to take a spaceship to its planet to help in the raising of a sunken cathedral devoted to a long forgotten god. So it veers from relatable, a bit, at that point. Being a Philip K. Dick novel, Galactic Pot-Healer is full of interesting ideas, which range from mildly weird to slightly uncomfortable. In the future, religion has sunk to the point where it consists of coin operated robotic padres on street corners. You insert a quarter, select the religion of your choice, and receive some advice based on your chosen creed. Or, there’s the Kalends, a group who distribute pamphlets that perfectly predict everything that will happen on Glimmung’s planet—and they predict its failure, which turns Glimmung’s raising into a strange battle against determinism. Or, there’s the story of how the god of the cathedral fell in the first place: he created a second being to feel sexual desire for, because he was lonely. Only, the biggest motivators for sexual desire are (apparently) incest, the fundamental universal taboo, so he made a sister; loving that which would otherwise disgust you, so made his sister evil; and loving someone stronger than you, and so he made her capable of dominating him. That’s... very, very strange. And behind all the determinism, sexual domination, and loss of meaning, there’s a series of simple word games, featuring headline misinterpretations, guessing quotations, and translation error. The book has a lot going on, and it doesn’t really come together, in the end. But at the core, there’s an intelligent questioning of what makes living worthwhile, and that elevates the book, even if the rest of the ideas don’t quite fit together.

Gothic Contemporaries. Watkiss uses six contemporary books--Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves, The Story of Lucy Gault, The Sea, The Gathering, Lunar Park, and Beyond Black--as sites for discussing a deconstructionist interpretation of the Gothic. The title is a little misleading, to be honest--it's really more Derridean theory with a bit of Gothic than the other way around. Each chapter highlights one of the six books, while elaborating on the aspects discussed in previous chapters. It starts with House of Leaves, and Watkiss argues that Navidson's passage through the house constitutes a metaphor for the process of reading, as Derrida describes it: a search for transcendental meaning that is ultimately frustrated through dissemination, a violent hunt that ends in the reader/explorer's destruction. Chapter 2 takes the Story of Lucy Gault, the plot of which is that a girl is thought to have committed suicide, sending her parents on a global mourning trip--then she turns up alive and well, but they are unreachable for years. The result, in Derridean terms, is a series of messages that never arrive, of communications that are misinterpreted, or can never be made in the first place. Chapter 3 , on the Sea, uses the spectre of doubling and the twin to discuss memory, mourning, and how the mourner converts the dead into something to be assimilated into the self. Chapter 4 continues the general theme of mourning in The Gathering, as Veronica arranges for her family to view her brother Liam's body after its suicide, making a complicated case of host, ghost, and lawful responsibilities, the digestion of dead's body by the mourners as a form of consumption. Chapter 5 is on Lunar Park and inheritance, both in terms of what the protagonist inherits from his father, and what the book itself inherits from the original Gothic, Castle of Otranto, and Hamlet. And the final chapter is on Beyond Black, and a psychic who enters into contracts with the dead for a living. Out of all the books, I've only read House of Leaves, but that wasn't a problem; Watkiss presents enough of each to follow her argument. It's much harder to follow if you don't have a LOT of Derrida under your belt, though. Watkiss eschews a proper conclusion, claiming that Derrida's point is that there is no conclusion that can neatly sweep up all meaning; while true, it does seem like a bit of a cheat. And while another of her points is that the Gothic is ultimately too intangible to be fully defined itself, it would be nice if she went a little bit further in explaining just what Gothic themes she was claiming to be investigating. There's spectres, haunting, mourning--but also a lot on mortgage, law, and inheritance. In terms of defining those as gothic, one's mileage may vary. It's okay, depending on your tolerance for Derrida, but it's not quite what the title suggests you'll be getting.

It's  an oddly disappointing set, to be honest. All three books fell a little short of the expectations I had for them, though, of the bunch, Galactic Pot-Healer was the closest to something really interesting. If nothing else, it impresses me with just how weird it was, with its underwater ruins, coin-operated priests, and giant multi-dimensional telepaths. Over the break, I went to an independent bookstore that had an entire five shelves of just discounted Philip K. Dick books, and it pleased me to no end that someone else is promoting and valuing his literary output--and at competitive prices! It says a lot about the image book that the Derridean book is not even remotely the most dense thing I've read recently. And I was reading the image book when I developed the cold and headache that took a solid week to throw off. I don't want to say it was the image book's fault, but... well, sometimes correlation is causation. And, headache-wise, it sure didn't help.  Both books assume the reader goes into them with quite a bit of background knowledge, and both suffer a bit from academic bloat, that particularly scholarly way of phrasing things that seem to obfuscate rather than help. Granted, both have the excuse that part of their argument is that words are insufficient, but, like I said, that does seem like a bit of a cheap way out. I suppose it's also worth noting that, unlike some of the nonfiction I've been reading lately, I read both of these nonfiction for research purposes, and that really changes the way I read things. My reading style becomes much more directed, and much less willing to wade through the chaff. Ah, well. May the next image book/gothic compendium be more to my tastes.

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