Tag Archives: selfhood

August Reads

Excited to report that I completed my 52-books-in-2016 challenge this month!

But now onto the August reads…

  1. At Home in the Law: How the Domestic Violence Revolution is Transforming Privacy by Jeannie Suk (YUP 2011)
  2. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance (Harper 2016)
    • After reading the author’s interview with the New Conservative, this got bumped to the top of the list. I laughed a lot more than I thought I would (some of the dialogue reminded me of what I heard as a kid, and reading about it somehow elicits, among other things, laughter). Instead of some memoirs where you either feel like the author barely sees him/herself as an agent (which then leaves you feeling depressed and helpless as well) or where the author tells a story of triumphing over all with god/John Galt-like control (unrealistic and fails to appreciate how we all depend on those around us, and how important it is to have support – as a kid and as an adult) this was much more in the middle. He acknowledges how some members of his family not simply “saved him” but, better than that, provided him with the conditions from which he could go on to succeed. Also, a refreshing comment on how the military can turn lives around (I don’t think people in elite institutions often understand how someone screaming at you, making you do what they say, can really *increase* agency, but Vance explains how much of a difference his time there made). (note: both my parents were in the Air Force and I’m pretty sure my dad would agree. Mom is a different story) In short: really enjoyed, very quick read, and I suspect will give a lot of people an insight into a culture of which they are ignorant but, if this election cycle has shown anything, they should not be.
  3. The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon (Scribner 2000)
    • Atlas is not an inaccurate description. This book is massive, 570+ pages. And the font is small! Parts I enjoyed. Other parts, less so. If you want a now-slightly-outdated encyclopedic understanding of depression, here’s your book. Chapters go into detail about the author’s own experiences, the history of different drugs and treatments, the history of how we’ve understood depression over the centuries (I liked that part), and an unfortunately short look at what it’s like to deal with mental illness for those who don’t come (in contrast to the author) from such privileged backgrounds.
  4. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein (originally Putnam’s Sons 1966)
    •  A gift with high praise from Will B., though he hadn’t read the thing since he was a kid. Libertarians will enjoy. Enjoyed the alternate family structures, the conscious computer (Mike!), and the political and revolutionary strategy. A quick-witted sort of tone. No Ursula K. Le Guin (Dispossessed is better) and no Octavia Butler, but good. And let’s be real: that is an awesome title.
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July Reads

With the move back to Cambridge, writing, the start of GRE prep, and two weeks of fantastic cycling in Montana with The Cycling House (100% recommend them), reading was a bit light this month.

  1. The Epistemology of Resistance: Gender and Racial Oppression, Epistemic Injustice, and Resistant Imaginations by José Medina (OUP)
  2. Because of Sex: One Law, Ten Cases, and Fifty Years That Changed American Women’s Lives at Work by Gillian Thomas (St. Martin’s Press)
    • Was putzing around the MIT coop bookshop and stumbled upon this. Started reading a few pages and decided I just had to finish it. If you like the Law Stories Series of books, you’ll enjoy this. Would be a great optional reading recommendation for students in an Employment Law-type class.
  3. Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit (originally published by Nation Books in 2004 but my version, with a new foreword and afterword, was published by Haymarket Books [check out their site for lots of great reads] in 2016)
    • I was feeling a bit depressed and decided to read something with a, well, more hopeful tenor than my newsfeed. Good tidbits on narrative ethics, conflict, clashing conceptions of self, epistemic injustice, and the necessity of imagination/role of imagination in social progress.
  4. Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse
    • Unbelievably good. The first Hesse I’ve read and I had to stop myself from taking pictures of every single page and sending them to friends. For those interested in narrative, multiple identities/selves, etc. this is absolutely positively amazing.

June Reads

 

  1. House of Holes by Nicholson Baker (Simon & Schuster)

What is the relationship between fantasy and reality? Here I have in mind two different kinds of fantasy: (1) alternative worlds we gain exposure to through, among other things, stories; (2) the fantasies we have in our heads.

As for version (1), I’ve been thinking about/reading about whether we have a duty of epistemic resistance (borrowing philosopher José Medina’s term from The Epistemology of Resistance).The idea here is something like: each of us needs to cultivate epistemic openness to alternative points of view and ways of knowing because it is through confrontation with these alternative perspectives that ethical learning happens. Part of cultivating this openness is engaging in the kinds of self-interrogation that make us feel perplexed and self-estranged. From that space of perplexity and alienation-from-self,  we are able to take seriously – listen truly – to the views of others. And the reason: because we are less stuck in our own perspective. We’ve seen the contingencies, conflicts, problems, latent in the mosaic of beliefs and commitments we have. (I know very little about the tradition, but, relying on Medina again, this is all part of the Pragmatist tradition espoused by Dewey, Jane Addams, and others.). Given how this works, we should affirmatively look for ways to confront ourselves with radically different views and possible worlds. (This is, for what it’s worth, part of why I think science fiction *can* be so important – some authors, like Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, and Marge Piercy, create worlds that really do jolt us/confront us with something uncomfortably different, thereby inviting us to question everything that seems axiomatic in our own lives and worlds).

As for version (2), what’s the relationship between those fantasies and our ethical commitments? Take sexual fantasies. If one is turned-on by depictions of women being degraded or humiliated, does that necessarily say something about one’s views and ethical commitments about women “in real life”? Some feminist theorists think the line between fantasy and real life is illusory – porn of men degrading women cannot but negatively effect the treatment of women. Others think there’s at least the possibility of compartmentalization. (think of violent video games – most (?) seem to think there’s no necessary relation between entering into those fantastic worlds and being violent in real life.)  I don’t know, though I tentatively think it’s unlikely there’s a hermeneutic seal between the ethical and fantastical. It seems like our aesthetic preferences/responses, like emotions, are at least in some sense formed by/guided by/influenced by/responsive to our ethical commitments. For instance, imagine the creation of totally computer-generated child pornography. That is, no children were involved, it’s all animated, etc. etc. I suspect that most people would find the idea of being turned on by that repugnant, even though it’s not real, and even though it’s just fantasy. They think people should not be turned on by depictions of that thing. Ever. And yet… people don’t seem to have that same no-go response to depictions (even if those depictions are fake in some sense [though I don’t think they’re very fake]) of women being humiliated and/or dominated, though they swear up and down they think the subordination of women “in real life” is wrong. What’s the difference? A response might be: even fake child porn is a depiction of someone doing something to someone who we think just cannot consent, whereas a woman can consent to being humiliated. So it’s sexy because there’s consent? Perhaps. But the turn-on is the humiliation and degradation — the consent just seems to be what then might make being turned on by that “ok” in some sense.

Another thought: there might be a lot else going on in what makes something we think ethically problematic fodder for fantasy. The taboo generally might work, and that subordination is now supposedly taboo, that might be a partial explanation. (though that doesn’t seem to work for fake child porn!)

One more thought I’ve been mulling over: thinking back to fantasy version (1), we have radically different understandings and perspectives depending on where we stand in relation to others. Different perspectives give us access to different kinds of knowledge, different insights. What if playing out different roles (sexual being just one example, though an area where I suspect adults feel more free to play than they do (sadly) otherwise) can give us access to different understandings. Could a man, for instance, ever play out a submissive, dominated role in one area as a way of coming to understand a bit more what that is like for groups that are more oppressed generally? We know that acting, even for a short time, can lead us to really embody those roles (think Milgram experiment). And what if that might be a good thing, at least sometimes?

That’s all a long introduction to House of Holes. This book, I had hoped, would speak to both versions (1) and (2). Alas, not so much.

The premise is something like this: ordinary objects, like dryer and golf holes, are occasional-portals, transporting everyday people to The House of Holes, a magical, carnivalesque sex resort where any and all sexual desires can be fulfilled… for a price.

Re: Fantasy (1) (exposure to new ideas)

As I said, I was under the impression that the book would make space for imagining different kinds of sexuality outside the everyday heteronormative stuff we are all exposed to. In short, I thought it would be like SF — enter an alien world and, through exposure, be changed a little. Or learn something new and weird about yourself. But no. First, how odd that there was basically zero same-sex sex. How is that possible? More than that, the vast majority of the fantasies were just the same old heteronormative tropes on steroids. Granted, lots of steroids. Lots and lots of steroids, but the underlying idea of what was sexual was fundamentally and almost always centered on women as sex objects, men turned on by doing things to them, and women being turned on by being used. Even the economy of House of Holes seemed saturated in the same old gender awfulness: when men wanted something, they had to pay money or temporarily give up a body part (like an arm, in exchange for a larger penis). When women wanted something — for instance, a woman who wanted to have sex with a tree — you know what she had to do? Guess. Yep — perform some sort of sexual act for a man. When women wanted something they almost invariably had to pay with sex. Men (at least, only men had them) could also buy butt-grabbing passes. One in possession of such a card had the right to go up to any woman and demand the right to grope her bottom (they could also demand to do what they wanted with said bottom out in public or require her to go back to their rooms, for instance). Women were forbidden to refuse, on pains of (if I remember correctly) all their clothes disappearing, forcing them to walk around naked. Like… is that supposed to be paradise for women? I don’t deny that some women will like some (or all) of what the book depicts, but I found the sexual politics not so great and, more to my original point, not the kind of mind-bending experience I was hoping it would be. That’s not to say that some of the book wasn’t fun at times, and I certainly appreciated female characters who fully and openly embraced sex, but, again, this was not a whole new world.

Re: Fantasy (2) (ethics and aesthetics)

The above pretty much captures my issues. What was fascinating to me: of all the reviews I read on this book, none seemed to mention these potential critiques. Everyone cheered that it was “sex positive.” And perhaps they are right, in some sense. Some women, some of the time, want to be subordinated in sex. And if it just so happens that every woman depicted in House of Holes had that view, then I suppose it was positive for them. The question might be (1) should we worry about what people fantasize about and (2) is it problematic when we only depict one kind of fantasy/way of being sexual? It would have been much neater to see a woman who enjoyed subordination sometimes but other times took on the dominant role. It also would have been great to see some sex that wasn’t so focused on power-as-sexual-fuel at all. Though perhaps Baker is sympathetic to, or at least finds descriptively accurate, Oscar Wilde’s view: “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.”

40. Consumption and the Making of Respectability, 1600-1800 by Woodruff Smith (Routledge)

41. Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit (updated edition, Haymarket Books)

This book is a collection of essays, the most famous among them: Men Explain Things to Men — the essay known for leading to the creation of the term “mansplaining”. (Tidbit: the author notes in a postscript that she has “doubts” about the term: “it seems to me to go a little heavy on the idea that men are inherently flawed this way, rather than that some men explain things they shouldn’t and don’t hear things they should. If it’s not clear enough in the piece, I love it when people explain things to me they know and I’m interested in but don’t yet know: it’s when they explain things to me I know and they don’t that the conversation goes wrong.” (13). I agree with her there.

The collection is great. My favorite two: Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable and Cassandra Among the CreepsCassandra deals with what Miranda Fricker would call epistemic injustice, mostly testimonial injustice specifically. In contrast to the Boy Who Cried Wolf, who was believed and believed until finally he wasn’t, Cassandra is the story of a woman who has the power of true prophecy but was cursed by Apollo (as punishment for refusing to have sex with him) so nobody would ever believe her. From there, Solnit discusses the harms we experience when others fail to take us seriously and fail to hear us. “Silence, like Dante’s hell, has its concentric circles.” (107). From talking about silencing, invoking both Judith Herman and Susan Brison’s work in this area (both scholars I respect immensely), she talks about the power of language, narrative construction, and how how words help us both describe and reshape our world. Like Fricker, the concept of sexual harassment is discussed. A great read on the heels of Consumption and the Making of Respectability.

Another interesting bit related to Respectability and the question of whether it can be used for subversive purposes (as question Smith raised): here, Solnit discusses the los desaparecidos (the disappeared) during Argentina’s “dirty war” (1976-1983) and the success the mothers had in raising awareness and pushing for change. As Solnit understands it (and I just don’t know nearly enough to comment on this), the mothers used the respectability that they had in virtue of motherhood (itself a result of the respectability women are given in the domain of femininity, domesticity, emotions, etc.) to be taken seriously. Whereas others fighting against the regime were brushed aside and delegitimized as Radical, the same could not be done to mothers who invoked the revered concept of motherly love. Here, we might say that the respectability women get through domestication, while subordinating in some (most) ways, was also itself a tool they could use for subversive ends. It gave them a narrow way to enter public spaces, where they might usually be excluded, to push for justice.

42. Bananeras: Women Transforming the Banana Unions of Latin America by Dana Frank  (originally South End Press, though I read the Haymarket Press version – purchased at the Chicago Lit Fest!)

I’m writing this on a plane without the book so I don’t have access to my notes! Short version: interesting and mind-opening.

43. The Wild Girls by Ursula K. Le Guin

44. From Slavery to the Cooperative Commonwealth: Labor and Republican Liberty in the Nineteenth Century by Alexander Gourevitch (Cambridge University Press)

Absolutely worth reading. I did not before this understand the relationship between the concept of Solidarity and the neo-republican conception of freedom. It goes a long way toward explaining why, historically, collective action was considered masculine, whereas today it seems to invoke the feminine. I’d like to understand more how that shift to the feminine occurred. Perhaps it tracks declines in unionization?

 

May Reads

Another month of good reads (speaking of which, friend me on goodreads!)

  1. The Language Animal by Charles Taylor (HUP)
    • Continuing my reading in the epistemic injustice area. From HUP, “For centuries, philosophers have been divided on the nature of language. Those in the rational empiricist tradition—Hobbes, Locke, Condillac, and their heirs—assert that language is a tool that human beings developed to encode and communicate information. In The Language Animal, Taylor explains that this view neglects the crucial role language plays in shaping the very thought it purports to express. Language does not merely describe; it constitutes meaning and fundamentally shapes human experience. The human linguistic capacity is not something we innately possess. We first learn language from others, and, inducted into the shared practice of speech, our individual selves emerge out of the conversation.”
  2. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
  3. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
    • This is the first fiction work of hers I’ve read (shamefully enough). Absolutely remarkable. I’m tempted to read it again in a few months. The first book I can recall where I felt compelled to take photos of passages and send them to my sister! A certain Proustian sensibility in it (she was a huge fan of his) but with its own unique voice. Loved it.
  4. The Secrete Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us by James W. Pennebaker
    • More in the epistemic injustice space, I thought this would be a good for thinking more about how the way we communicate shapes how others perceive/siganls our place in social hierarchies. This book could have been a bit shorter, I’d say. But, nonetheless, enjoyed.
  5. The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith
    • Just received the Man Booker International Prize a few weeks ago. Great story about how it got translated – Smith was a PhD student, read it in Korean, loved it, and decided it just had to be translated. She spent the next year learning Korean better, translated ten pages, sent it to a publisher, publisher loved it, and the rest is history!
    • As I’ve said before, it is tragic how little opportunity English speakers have to read translations of Asian authors. Kang, a woman author from South Korea, is one of the very very very few South Korean authors we have access to. The loss is ours. The way she writes about relationships (indeed, the family dynamics especially), the way her characters see the world, the symbolism, themes, etc., all open up new ways of being and thinking.
  6. The Workplace Constitution from the New Deal to the New Right by Sophia Z. Lee (CUP)
    • So great – I only wish I had read this before I taught private discrimination this quarter. Broadly, the book looks at the history of constitutional rights in the workplace. Today, in the private sector, most of us are under an at-will employment regime. We can be fired for almost any reason or no reason at all. While most Americans *think* their constitutional right to free speech and, more at stake in this book, a Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment right to not be wrongfully discriminated against, are protected in the workplace, that’s just not true. This book traces the battles that got us to this point. It’s a fascinating combination of labor, race, and the rise of the New Right. And what I really enjoyed — a fantastic explanation of the pros and cons of an expansive state action doctrine. Originally, pro-labor wanted an expansive doctrine so the constitution could reach the workplace. Then, as the New Right gained power (esp. with Rehnquist and the Burger Court), the move to a colorblind Constitution meant that an expansive state action doctrine would preclude some of the affirmative action policies workplaces adopted. Expansive state action also meant government intervention in the inner-workings of unions, which itself gave industry a new and powerful anti-unionization tool (companies argued that if unions were discriminatory, the NLRB couldn’t certify them as workers’ exclusive representative as it would violate the Fifth A) [state action = certification as exclusive rep]). I have pages and pages of notes and questions. If you’re interested in state action, labor, civil rights, the history of right to work (the Right’s adoption of an expansive state action doctrine), and rights in the workplace, this is a must read.

The Buried Giant

book coverI just finished The Buried Giant yesterday. I read the whole thing over the course of a two week work-cation so the entire book is still fresh in my mind, which I much prefer to those times when I’m forced to read a book like this over a much longer time horizon.

So the novel. I was just on Goodreads and saw it has a 3.47/5 rating and am rather surprised. I found the book, much like Never Let Me Go and Remains of the Day, beautiful. Beautiful in its portrayal of the love between the two main characters – Axl and Beatrice (or “princess”, as Axl tenderly calls her). And here I’m not referring to romantic beauty of a youthful sort – like that depicted in most tear-jerking romantic films, or the sort of flawless beauty depicted on magazine covers. This book lets you go along on the journeys of a handful of people who have deep, time-worn, hopeful and yet pained human hearts. A journey where you bear witness to a short of tenderness (second time I’m using that word but it’s quite a good fit) between two old lovers that feels handmade and imperfect, with both deeply buried chambers of pain and areas of bright and simple light. And all that makes the story beautiful. It also makes you think something like: ah. So that is what the best sort of love can be.

But enough of me trying (and no doubt failing) to express the feeling the book created in me. The themes it engages with deserve serious reflection. Here, I’ll only highlight some of the main ones that interested me and leave it to in-person conversations over hot chocolate to discuss in greater detail.

endpaper art by Neil GowerThrough the use of a fantastical land, shrouded in a mysterious mist that makes people (and perhaps even animals) lose access to their memories, the book creates a space for us to reflect on the nature of memory itself – its reliability, its construction, its purpose and use. It does this in the context of both our inter-personal relationships (e.g. family, romance) and as regards to the sort of collective memories of peoples (e.g., Britons versus the Saxons). Here are some thoughts I wrote down while reading:

  • what do we make of romantic love where the parties cannot remember their shared past? Beatrice seemed to think remembering quite important, that without the discreet memory of the event that led to her feelings for Axl their love was thrown into some doubt.
  • why do we care whether we can prove our love? And why do we think memory has anything to do with it?
  • the idea of “never forget” and the hope that once we remember, we’ll know the truth of the matter seems constantly challenged throughout the book. Ishiguro subtly and without warning tells the same event from different perspectives, from people with different histories and memories going into the event, and we see that there is no there there. (my favorite version of this revolved around the discussion of the buildings at the monastery) That is, there is no single true characterization of what happened, let alone what it means. But if that’s right, then I return to my earlier question – why is memory so important to our belief in the realness of love we experience today? Certainly a narrative of a life is important for our sense of self (who is the me sitting here if I am suddenly stripped of my own life story), but the characters don’t seem as preoccupied with worries about the integrity of their own selfhood. This is much more about memory’s role in our relations with others.
  • Can we apologize or ask for forgiveness for things we do not remember? Near the end of the book I was reminded of Luke 23:34. Jesus says from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” But when reading this book I’m not sure I understand what that sort of forgiveness looks like/ is doing. If someone does not know what they do – or, somewhat differently, if today they cannot remember what it is they once did – are you even forgiving them? And even if you are forgiving them, forgiving them for what? Is there blame to even be had there? Must there be blame before one can be forgiven? (to be clear, I had to look up the verse… and the fact it was Jesus who said it. But I did remember the line!).
  • Is it beyond us to love a person while remembering everything? Is it beyond us to love or at least accept other groups of people while remembering our histories? (and here I think of the truth and reconciliation commission as an argument that it is possible, though even there it might be that new versions of memories are formed through that process, and that somehow the reconstruction of memory, or at least its recontexualization, is necessary for forgiveness and peace.)

Oh and one more thing. The US edition I got was published by Alfred A. Knoff as a Borzoi book, printed and bound by RR Donnelley, the book jacket was designed by Peter Mendelsund, and the endpaper art was created by Neil Gower. This is unquestionably the most gorgeous modern edition I can remember laying eyes on. I very much hope to see more books published with such care in the future. A real pleasure to read something so beautiful and fitting to the story itself.

How Our Lives Become Stories: Making Selves

Book CoverRead this in conjunction with Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights by law professor Kenji Yoshino. I absolutely recommend the pairing.

In Covering, Kenji basically argues that until we are each able to be our “authentic selves” in society we are not truly equal. To say people are equal regardless of their sexual orientation (or lack thereof) but then say that gays shouldn’t “flaunt” their gayness is to suffer a sort of cognitive dissonance. The test of equality is whether I can not only be bisexual but whether I can “act bisexual”. As I said in my review of the book, there are some serious issues with this idea of there being some way of being bisexual. But, putting that aside, his point is a good one: unless we can be our authentic selves, which means perform as our authentic selves, we aren’t actually equally. How Our Lives Become Stories is one piece in the large body of literature dealing with selfhood and, in so being, sheds light on how complex the construction of selves is (and thus how Kenji skips over much of the hard stuff). A lot of the book focuses on the relational aspects of self but it also contrasts that sort of self with the self we seem to be when it seems we’re acting apart from our relations, as radical individuals.

The book makes great use of autobiographies as a way of showing how the very construction of self (and the construction of a story about the self) varies across cultures and time.

Quite a great read. The first twenty or so pages are a bit of a slog (they struck me as overly dense and lacking the clarity he provides later), but after that it’s a very doable read.