Saturday, April 13, 2013

Bibliophile: Adventures in Literature at the University of Winnipeg, now with more Spaceballs

“Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.”
― Charles William Eliot

This is Bibliophile. 

This week, we'll be commenting on the new books from the library of the University of Winnipeg, after the break..
The University of Manitoba has an RSS feed for new books--it seems to function at about a month delay. The feeds are organized by topic, and topics are listed in alphabetical order. I'm going to jump around a bit, I think. Let's start in philosophy and religion. 
God is dead: secularization in the West / Steve Bruce. 2003.
It's a lot more religion than philosophy in this section, which makes the title here ironic; if these selections were anything to go by, there's no secularization going on at all. But I have to admit, that's not what seems to be happening in society at large.  Bruce uses sociology to justify his claim that religion in general is dying out in Western society. In Bruce's own words, he's not taking a stance on the issue: "Sociologists should describe and explain; they should neither regret nor rejoice." In the introduction, he also goes into lengths on how he appreciates that he comes from a position where he can make statements regarding religion without coming under prosecution or harassment, or threat of personal harm. That may not relate directly to the summary I'm doing, but I thought it was a nice touch, and a recognition that sociologists, neutral or otherwise, still work in the real world. The book also uses William S. Bainbridge as an example  of a scholar who tried to ignore certain writings on secularization to make it easier to deconstruct. I have no idea if that's accurate or not, but it's interesting to see Bainsbridge in this setting, as he's since reinvented himself as a game scholar, albeit one who still considers religious issues. ...This, in case you're wondering, is the sort of meandering around the topic that you get when I can't find a proper summary of a book. H.

In praise of love / Alain Badiou with Nicolas Truong ; translated by Peter Bush.
Badiou's one of those French philosophers that I feel I should read more of, but never quite get around to doing. It doesn't help that I kept confusing him with Jean Baudrillard, and Pierre Bourdieu. Too many B-philosophers.  In this book, Badiou argues that love is under threat, thanks to general consumerism, online dating, and the view that love is a variant of desire and hedonism. To him, love is an existential project, a constant unfolding quest for truth, a chance encounter that changes two individuals and challenges them to see the world from two points of view instead of one. It's a very Romantic concept, with big and little r romantic. It's an interesting set of philosophers, too: Plato, Beckett, Lacan, Propust, Plato, Kierkegaard, and de Beauvoir. I'm not sure you can really argue that love has been commodified in the 20th century, though--it was certainly codified at least long before that, when it was interwined with courtly rituals and marriage negotiations.

 Let's try our luck at language and literature. It's really productive, actually.

Camera lucida: reflections on photography / Roland Barthes ; translated from the French by Richard Howard.
I've referred to Camera Lucida a few times on this blog.  It's Barthes' big study of photography as a medium, how it relates to time and memory, and especially what it means to him, to have a photograph of his mother available to him after her death. I know some people get very annoyed with the book, because it's very typical of a certain strain of French philosophy: it's a lot of wandering, a lot of pontificating, and it studiously avoids constructing a detailed, direct argument. I've always had a soft spot for it, though. So much of Barthes' earlier works are either about structuralism and semiotics, and never really escape that system, especially in his writings on semiotics and the textual analysis of S/Z. Yes, Camera Lucida is wandering and strange, but it feels far more personal and meaningful than most of Barthes' works. It doesn't attempt to place a set of  not-very-useful terms between the concept and the reader the way things like connotation and denotation do. (Your mileage for such terms may vary.) Granted, parts of the book come off as ridiculous, or impossible to extrapolate or even discussion in other contexts, but, well, I like it. H.

How to be alone: essays / Jonathan Franzen.
I read Franzen's The Corrections as part of an American Literature reading group, and we all came to more or less the same conclusion: it was a book that felt as if it had some big message to say, but never got around to articulating it as well as it seemed to think it did. It's not exactly a positive note to start a relationship with an author on. I've also attempted to read this collection before. The first essay, "My Father's Brain," is a great account of what it means to live with the slow deterioration of an elderly family member. It's around the essay questioning the role of literature in America today, though, that I started to get annoyed by Franzen's... elitism, I guess. I try to be pretty sparing about accusations of elitism, since I'm in a strange place myself. On the one hand, my area of studies is popular culture, which is a far more populist branch of the academy than many. On the other hand, it's still the academy, and all the Ivory Tower that the terms implies. And a further complication is that, as a white North American male, I'm part of the elite group of gamers, too, almost regardless of whether I want to be or not. So I try not to use terms like elitist. But the way Franzen characterized levels of American culture... it bothered me.  The whole issue of his tenure as a Oprah Winfrey author bothered me. And I wound up never finishing the book, because it became overdue before I could. It's not quite true that I didn't finish it because I didn't like it, but I certainly would have faced a better chance of finishing it if I had found its contents as thoroughly compelling as that first essay. H

How soon is now?: medieval texts, amateur readers, and the queerness of time / Carolyn Dinshaw. 2012.
Dinshaw argues that the hobby medievalists, those operating outside the acknowledged academy, inhabit a concept of time characterized by desire, one more disorderly and asynchronous. And that's a great idea, but honestly, I just picked this book because the title meant I could quote the Spaceballs routine:
 DARK HELMET: What the hell am I looking at? When does this happen in the movie?
COL. SANDERS: Now. You're looking at now, sir. Everything that happens now is happening now.
DARK HELMET: What happened to then?
COL. SANDERS: We passed then.
COL. SANDERS: Just now. We're at now, now.
DARK HELMET: Go back to then.
COL. SANDERS: I can't.
COL. SANDERS: We missed it.
COL. SANDERS: Just now.
DARK HELMET: When will then be now?

Classic. H.

Our aesthetic categories: zany, cute, interesting / Sianne Ngai. 2012.
Ngai argues that postmodernism is dominated by zany, cute, and interesting. And a theory based around these terms can explain how people make aesthetic judgments once reserved for the beautiful and the sublime to sort through hypercommodified world of late capitalism. I can relate to those terms, given that My Little Pony and Adventure Time number among my favorite shows. And it's also a good set of terms for describing memes and LOLCats and the like. Zany is a style of performing affective labor, bound up in playfulness and desperation. Interesting is tied to the circulation of discourse in terms of interest and boredom. Cute is consumption that brings out feelings of tenderness and aggression simultaneously. As an initial response, I think those are a good set of terms for dealing with modern (fine, postmodern) products, and the ways to consume them. Ngai's theory comes from Adorno, Schlegl, and Nietzsche, and cultural artifacts that include Bob Perelman, Ed Ruscha, and Lucille Ball. Not the approach I'd take, but it sounds like a promising study.H.

A new kind of bleak: journeys through urban Britain / Owen Hatherley. 2012.
Hatherley is apparently known as a critic of England's New Labour party. His previous book A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain criticized their architectural legacy, as the title suggests. This book is on how their "economic mismanagement and civic irresponsibility" is damaging the places where people live. It's how austerity is hurting people, and travels from Plymouth to Belfast, the Welsh valleys, and Coventry.  And the traces of what Britain was and what it may yet be. It's pretty common to talk about how American politics have become exceptionally fragmented and polarized, but the British brand can be pretty antagonist as well, as some of the vehement rhetoric coming out of Margaret Thatcher's death. I picked this one mostly because of the oblique allusion to Charles Dickens in the title. H,

Pagan themes in modern children's fiction: green man, shamanism, earth mysteries / Peter Bramwell. 2009.
This is one of those books where the title basically explains the approach. For my part, my "pagan" childhood stories feature a lot of fantasy; Susan Cooper was a big part, but even more so, Lloyd Alexander, and the Prydain Chronicles, which are still one of my favorite series of books, though I haven't looked at them in a long, long time. According to the information provided, this study includes Susan Cooper, Catherine Fisher, Geraldine McCaughrean, Anthony Horowitz, and Philip Pullman; I'll admit, I'm only familiar with the first and last. Judging from the index, we also have Judy Allen, a lot on control and agency, some Kevin Crossley-Holland, a fair bit on disability, environmentalism, and a lot of discussion of the Green Man.H.

Global/local: cultural production and the transnational imaginary / Rob Wilson and Wimal Dissanayake, editors 1996.

"This groundbreaking collection focuses on what may be, for cultural studies, the most intriguing aspect of contemporary globalization--the ways in which the postnational restructuring of the world in an era of transational capitalism has altered the way with think about cultural production." You know you're in academy when some says that an aspect of globalization is intriguing. Or when someone uses the word intriguing, in general. Now, let's get to the meat of any anthology discussion: essay list! It's a collection that focuses on depth rather than breadth; there's 18 essays, scattered over just under 400 pages, which is an impressive on average length. The first section is globalizations, and features general topics: the shift from colonialism to transnationalism, liminal panics and the transnational film; imperial family and transnational imaginary. The second section has essays on local conjunctions: Deleuze and Robocop 2 (I'd read that), Innteracial Sex in Japan's International age, the production of multiculturalism in Canada. And the final section is global local disruptions, with essays on Oceana and regional imaginary, and an interview of Fredric Jameson by Paik Nak-chung on South Korea and social space. I'd read that too. Some really interesting pieces here.H.

Critical survey of graphic novels: heroes & superheroes / editors, Bart H. Beaty, Stephen Weiner.2012.
On Amazon, this item is found in the graphic novels: History and Price Guides section. It feels like there's something wrong with lumping graphic novel history with price guides--too commodity-driven for my tastes. And this is a book of criticism, which is a slightly different beast than either, anyway. As the main title suggests, this book is the first in a series, provided a critical survey of the comic book field, entries lasting 3 to 4 pages in length. All right, maybe history is the right place for this one. As a matter of fact, I seem to remember seeing the CFP drifting around when it was in its draft phases, or something similar to it. I really should have submitted something. Opportunities lost. It looks like a fairly encyclopedic thing, consisting of 800 pages and dozens and dozens of entries. I can't see myself teaching a class with this, to be honest--it's a little too much breadth over depth, to return to an earlier comparison. A typical entry consists of a storyline, lists the basic information, the publication history, the plot, the characters, general themes, impact, other media, and related stories and references. It's an excellent resource, and I'd probably want to own a copy if I was teaching a graphic novel course, but I wouldn't use it a main text for the class--more of an element kept on reserve for when the students needed it.

Challenging heterosexism from the other point of view: representations of homosexuality in Queer as folk and The L word / Dana Frei.
I never watched Queer as Folk, but I did watch the L-Word. I gave up somewhere in the second last season, as the Jenny character became such an annoying caricature of herself from earlier seasons. Honestly, I think it fell into the same problem as a lot of long-term dramas, that all the logical events and pairings had happened, and all that was left was shock tactics and rearranging the deck chairs. (See also: Gossip Girl, love it as I do.) Granted, I was never the show's audience, and I respect it for what it did do--raise awareness concerning a repressed segment of the population, and give them stories of their own in the larger popular consciousness. Frei's question in this book is whether such popular culture depictions serve to challenge the institution, or reinforce stereotypes and create rigid concepts of homosexuality. It's a question worth investigating.

Mathematics of the heart / Kefi Chadwick.
I'm going to let you in on a not-so-secret secret: whenever I do my token "fiction" book for Bibliophile, I choose the title in the hopes that it's going to be a sci-fi or fantasy book. And this was the closest one this week, though I doubt very much that this is a story of a robot whose heart is powered by math. In fact, it's a play. Professor Paul MacMilan is a doctor of Chaost Theory and storm patterns, but--ironically!--he can';t manage the chaos of his real life, as his brother lives on his sofa, his girlfriend is pushing for direction in their relationship, and the new PhD student Zainab is making waves. To be honest, the mathematics purist in me always gets a little annoyed when math is used as a metaphor for people's lives rather than the real driving force of the plot--I'm looking at you Proof. You wouldn't call a piece science-based just because the main character was a geologist would you? well, you might, I guess. Still, I really yearn for a play that really digs deep into the political intrigue of the Mandelbrot set.

 That's it for this week.

Later Days.

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