Wednesday, April 25, 2018
The Call of the Wild by Jack London
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The thought of Friedrich Nietzsche underlies much of the 20th century’s analysis of power. Nietzsche disseminated ideas on the "will to power," which he saw as the domination of other humans as much as the exercise of control over one's environment and The Call of the Wild reflects London’s admiration for the works of this once obscure nineteenth century German philosopher. In the North, might makes right.
The setting of London’s novel is allegorical in the sense that the southern lands represent the soft, materialistic world; while the northern lands symbolize a world beyond civilization one that is inherently competitive in nature.
Buck learns that in this world he must either master or be mastered. He comes to understand that power is truly the power over life and death and that if you have power, you must exert it in order to survive. The very appearance of power must lead to the assertion of power. The only other option is death. In light of this view of power, London suggests that a wild, natural existence is not as free as the reader might imagine. The natural world is dominated by rules and codes just as the civilized world is.
Donald Pizer wrote in Jack London: The Problem of Form, Studies in the Literary Imagination, that: "the strong, the shrewd, and the cunning shall prevail when ... life is bestial.”
But man's will "to master” nature stifled Buck's own innate drive to dominate. While Buck masters other dogs, man masters him. Buck is not able to fully assert his mastery until he flagrantly defies the law of club and fang by attacking the Yeehats. In doing so, Buck willfully overturns man's dominance over dog, but also gains autonomy over himself. Free from man's mastery, he is able to roam nature freely as the leader of a wild wolf pack. Buck not only mastered the ways of the wild but also his own fate and after the death of his friend John Thornton Buck finally answers the call of the wild and willfully takes up the life of his ancestors.
Tuesday, April 17, 2018
Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area by Harry M. Caudill
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Appalachia has a history of serving as whatever the counterpoint is to our contemporary definitions of progress.
The Cumberland Plateau has always been seen as an anchor dragging behind the rest of America. For example, right after the Civil War, when progress was built into ideas about modernization and the development of industry, Appalachia emerged as this backward place that could throw a wrench into the entire system by remaining primitive, even savage.
This book has often been described as a "definitive text on poverty in Appalachia among journalists, academics, and government bureaucrats concerned with economic inequality in America,” and yet despite the nearly endless research into the area and its many problems the area itself remains largely unchanged, even today.
For a while, in the immediate wake of Night Comes to the Cumberlands, Harry Caudill thought his book would help him save Appalachia. He had credibility and the nation's attention. Surely he could use that to build something great, something permanent. But he became disappointed with the slow pace of change and disillusioned that the people did not themselves more actively seek reform. Caudill told reporters that "money alone" couldn't fix an ignorant rural culture that wouldn't bother itself to learn.
Appalachia taken as a whole perfectly illustrates capitalism’s destructive force, while it simultaneously lifts people out of poverty it also keeps them dependent and ultimately only serves to exploit them.
Journalist Chris Hedges labels areas like the Appalachians as “sacrifice zones.” In an interview with Moyers and Company he said, “It’s absolutely imperative that we begin to understand what unfettered, unregulated capitalism does,” Hedges emphasized. “These are sacrifice zones, areas that have been destroyed for quarterly profit. And we’re talking about environmentally destroyed, communities destroyed, human beings destroyed, families destroyed. And because there are no impediments left, these sacrifice zones are just going to spread outward. There's no way to control corporate power. The system has broken down, whether it's Democrat or Republican. And because of that, we've all become commodities. Just as the natural world has become a commodity that is being exploited until it is exhausted, or it collapses.”
One of the biggest problems facing the Appalachia's is a lack of quality leadership on a more local level. The type of leadership positions available at this level do not generally tend to attract the brightest candidates, as the more educated and intelligent members of the populace tend to move away, and as a result the people are burdened with leadership that is grossly incapable of making any real and lasting contributions to their communities. As a result of this intellectual and creative paucity the people under their guidance inevitably suffer.
Harry Caudill exclaimed that, “The fiscal court, the archaic institution that it is, for the sake of efficiency should be abolished and its functions should be turned over to a three-man county commission. The commissioners should then be directed to hire a county manager to conduct the fiscal affairs of the county under their guidance.” He also said, “The most difficult and most important objective lies in the consolidation of counties. By this means the number of officials could be reduced to a third the present number, and the resulting economies would make available to the remaining courthouses funds for essential projects which now receive little or no support.”
Whatever the solutions to the problems facing Appalachia may be, the answers are going to have to come from the people. No one is coming to save them and hope of a brighter tomorrow is only holding them back.
Whenever people point out the problems facing the people of southeastern Kentucky the people living there inevitably begin to cry foul and exclaim that they aren’t being fairly represented and ask why must we only talk about the negatives? Harry Caudill had an answer to that very question, “I have dwelt purposely on the negative influences because they have given the region its character and have created its difficulties.”
There was a point in time when I would meet people and they’d hear that I’m from Kentucky and they’d ask me about this book and they seemed really excited to talk to me about it. But the question was never, “What do you think about this book?” It was always accusatory as in, “What do you have to say about this?” As if the problems the author outlines was somehow my fault, and maybe it is, but blaming the poor for their poverty is a favorite pastime in a country where income inequality is its bread and butter.
But what concerns the author of this book should concern all of us. We are embedded in a system of exploitation that we come to tolerate simply because we can’t even imagine life without it.
If you’ve ever watched Alfonso Cuarón’s brilliant adaptation of the P.D. James novel by the same name, Children of Men, you are inevitably reminded of the phrase attributed to Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Zizek, but actually originates with H. Bruce Franklin, “that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.” This slogan captures precisely Appalachia’s predicament. Capitalism limits our dreams by claiming that it is the best possible system despite its imperfections. Culminating in a widespread belief that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative. Global capitalism is simply accepted as a fact that you cannot do anything about. The only question is, will you accommodate yourself to it, or will you be dismissed and excluded by it?
Tuesday, April 10, 2018
Exquisite Corpse by Poppy Z. Brite
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book is repulsive, no question, and yet Brite can still be defended as an artful poet of murder and obsession.
The title, Exquisite Corpse, refers to a unique literary style originated by the surrealist school of writing. This machination is used to describe a method of writing through collaboration where each writer will tack on their narrative to the end of the last, without necessarily knowing what came before. This particular story was not written in that way by multiple authors, instead the title gives a glimpse into the storytelling style itself, where the narratives of these four distinct men build onto one another to the most horrific and ferocious ending imaginable.
Brite has described it as "a necrophilic, cannibalistic, serial killer love story that explores the seamy politics of victimhood and disease.”
Brite’s ultraviolent tales generally focus on gay and transgender characters living in the south. He himself grew up in Kentucky and describes himself as a, “gay man that happens to have been born in a female body." Some have even deemed his work as horror-erotica. Yet, this does little to convey the essence of Brite’s vision, which is both intricately complex and extremely disturbing.
There has always been a kind of pervasive association of homosexuality with mortality and the ongoing association of gay sex with impending peril has generated a profound loss of perceived intimacy among gay men.
Freud’s insights into the psychic registering of loss and the desire for the lost object
become valuably descriptive here of the desires evoked (but never, of course, fulfilled) by bareback video.
Bareback porn is usually shot in a manner closer to documentary realism than the more theatrical and stylized productions of mainstream porn. After ejaculation, the top often either digitally or orally extracts the semen as visible proof of the fluid transmission. Overall, the scenes come across as heavily ritualistic, often reverent, with an air of religiosity.
Bareback porn, either straight or homosexual, provides a fantasy space in which viewers can access an image of fullness and completion, however vicarious or metaphorical. The nature of desire, after all, is its inability to be fulfilled; the condomless video becomes a dream screen whereby desire is glimpsed and renewed.
Casey Mckittrick, in an essay entitled, Brothers Milk: the erotic and the lethal in bareback pornography, argues that, “Semen operates as the fundamental lost object in post AIDS gay male sexuality. It becomes, in essence, the mother’s milk that, once denied to the child, shatters a sense of original plenitude and belonging. The exchange of semen signifies a fantasy of restored intimacy, of essential sharing of the self with another. Just as the advent of AIDS installed a radical sense of alienation and displacement in the gay psyche, the condom becomes a barrier to this intimacy, a place where feelings of separation and radical incompletion are cathected.”
Lee Edelman, in his book No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, delineates a pathologizing tendency in mainstream American culture concerning homosexuality. Edelman maintains that the Symbolic order is supported and naturalized through the valorization of a procreative sexuality that guarantees the social and biological reproduction of the same. Legitimate subjecthood, he argues, is assumed through taking on the mandatory cultural labor of reproduction. This procreative identity ensures the stability of the subject through the fantasmatic marriage of identity to futurity. Queer sexuality, in its non-compliance with this political futurity, registers as outside the Symbolic order, as a deathly shadow of the stable subject. In short, queer sexuality reads as the death of the subject, the end of a name and a bloodline.
Jonathon Dollimore, in his book Death, Desire, and Loss in Western Culture, echoes Freud in his pithy remark: “Death inhabits sexuality: perversely, lethally, ecstatically.”
There are no boundaries for Brite. Nothing is taboo. Scenes of an erotic nature are not simply presented alongside the carnage, but rather intertwined until the devouring of intestines becomes sexual and a shared kiss becomes gore.
Slavoj Zizek said, “You cannot do the game of erotic seduction in politically correct terms. There is a moment of violence, when you say: ‘I love you, I want you.’ In no way can you bypass this violent aspect.”
This is a gritty and filthy novel which has more in common with smut than speculative fiction.
Nevertheless for those who desire a unique and grotesque experience, there is really nothing else quite like it.
Wednesday, April 4, 2018
Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture by Slavoj Žižek
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
For Lacan our unconscious is language itself.
The emergence of language opened up a hole in our reality, and this hole shifted the axis of our gaze, language redoubling “reality” back into itself.
Subjects can not communicate with one another (nor even themselves) directly, but only through the signifiers called ‘words’ in a language. Signifiers are neither fixed nor even fully understood by anyone, there is always hidden meaning behind what we say and how it’s said, therefore repression is required for us to assimilate the rules or orders constituting a language.
The subject itself is neither fixed nor transparent and language doesn’t represent the subject passively but turns around and structures the subject. In fact, the subject only comes to be with it’s initiation into language.
Zizek conceives the subject as something purely negative, a void or an emptiness of being (which Lacan refers to as the incomplete, divided, or “barred” subject of the unconscious).
The result of all of this is that communication is never clear or complete, selves are both brought together and separated by language and the subject is subject to demands that remain unfulfilled and desires that are rooted not in the individual but in the symbolic order of which it is a part.
Social reality then is nothing more than a fragile, symbolic cobweb that can at any moment be torn asunder by an intrusion of the real. The real being any traumatic event that shatters our coordinates, i.e. the part that is left over after symbolization, the part that resists symbolization altogether.
Zizek took Lacan’s ideas and applied them to the genealogy of culture and it is here that we should perhaps look for the basic premise of a Freudian theory of culture: all culture is ultimately nothing but a compromise formation, a reaction to some terrifying, radically inhuman dimension proper to the human condition itself. Culture is something we all believe in without realizing we believe in it. What is a cultural lifestyle, if not the fact that, although we don’t believe in Santa Claus, there is a Christmas tree in every house, and even in public places, every December?
Since our desires themselves are rooted in the symbolic order we can use Lacan’s ideas to interpret a text (movie, book, etc.) to see what it presents to us as objects of desire and since language and the symbolic order require repression, Lacan (Zizek) can offer us ways to discover just how the oppressive dynamics of our society actually work.