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If you accept that loneliness is the great existential terror that we all, in our different ways, try to escape, it isn’t hard to apprehend the fraught relationship that this gives us to our own bodies, because it’s our bodies that keep us so basically and dreadfully apart. It’s interesting to note how often words used to express the value of literature (or art more generally) conjure up kinds of immaterialism: ‘seeing the world through different eyes,’ ‘being transported’, forging a ‘psychic connection’ with the author, ‘losing yourself’ in a book – all of these are expressions that run against what seems to be the brute material truth: that we are locked inside our skulls.

There was a time there where I could not have a conversation about books with a stranger at a party say, without them launching into a speech about how amazing Atomised by Michel Houellebecq was. This became increasingly annoying for me because these ‘fans’ seemed unable to describe exactly what the appeal of the book was. They were astonished by the sense of shock that the writer had elicited and sometimes a conspiratorial feeling of belonging to a fellow-traveler – yes that is how the world really is – but both of these reactions seemed entirely self-directed. My conversational partners were unable to enlighten me as to why I should read the book too. I suspect fans of Portnoy’s Complaint were similarly cultish back in the day, but that was another time and polite conversation so firmly stratified, that the risk Roth-fans ran of offending was far greater. By the late nineties this was less of a concern.

Ben Jeffery tackles the meaning behind Houellebecq’s writings head on, placing the fictional exertions of the French literary enfant terrible within a far broader context¬† in order to draw out exactly what the egotism of the author is aiming at. In effect, he has done a massive service to a writer occasionally dismissed as being a reactionary whose deconstruction of modern society as being nothing more than a series of sexual power exchanges lies somewhere between Foucault and a depressing Carry On.

Instead Jeffery runs the gamut from Schopenhauer to David Foster Wallace to properly situate the likes of Atomised and The Possibility of an Island, revealing that Houellebecq is investigating the relevance of any literary action at all. Engaging in fiction is in and of itself an ephemeral act, itself an echo of how we attempt to escape our own sense of mortality. What is most worthwhile about Anti-Matter is that Jeffery does not fall victim to the typical trap of Houellebecq critics. This is an intellectual salvage operation, that avoids rampant speculation about the personal life of the headline-bating writer, not to mention the rancorous testimonies of the author’s own mother.

What I am saying is I am grateful someone finally took the time to try and explain the point of Houellebecq to me. I have not had an easy time with the writer’s work myself. I thought his essay on Lovecraft bitterly disappointing for one, but Jeffery cites it prominently in Anti-Matter. The New England fantasist’s own ‘depressive realism’* is tied into Houellebecq’s, both arguing that life is essentially pointless. The latter’s own jaunts into sf utopias demonstrates his continuing interest in using imaginary worlds to illustrate how incomplete, fleeting and immaterial the engagement humans have with reality is. Fiction/fantasy are decadent acts that in Houellebecq’s assessment squander what is vital about life itself – hence his obsession with sex – but Jeffery’s astute addendum is that whatever sense of truth, or engagement with our existence that we enjoy is equally a ‘lie’. Realism is concerned primarily with seeming real and Houellebecq’s pessimism punches through the nadir point to the ‘truth’ – we need the lies.

Ben Jeffery has produced not only an excellent critical assessment of Houellebecq’s writings, but a fantastic think-piece in and of itself, refining the intentions of his subject, as well as opening up this erudite discussion of art to the act of living in the world.

With thanks to Zero Books for my review copy.

*Excepting your occasional ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn – of course.

Anti-matter: Michel Houllebecq and Depressive Realism

Meillassoux lists three positions that fall under the label correlationism: transcendentalism, phenomenology and postmodernism. This implies that most correlationists are ‘continental’ antirealists. These continental antirealist positions tend to emphasize questions of givenness, human access, and transcendental subjectivity. The correlationist claims that when you speak about objects, events, laws or beings you do so in the sense of the correlationist’s commitment: as given.

When I saw that the author of this book was based in Dublin I got onto the philosophy student grapevine (translation – I sent a text) and within minutes had the full skinny on Paul J. Ennis. Ireland is a very small place. The social scene of former philosophy students is even smaller.

Ennis is here critiquing the theories of Quentin Meillassoux and the Continental Realist school he has come to represent. Nothing less than a challenge to the dominant theories of Immanuel Kant, whose ‘Copernican Revolution’ has infused academic philosophy ever since, this is a fascinating discussion. Focusing on Meillassoux’s ‘After Finitude’ initially, Ennis then expands his book to include a study of the aforementioned Kant, Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek and Markus Gabriel, before becoming beached on the lonely shore of Heidegger. There is nothing less at stake here than the relevance of philosophical discourse itself, Ennis providing a candid examination of the opposing sides in this refreshingly modern philosophical debate.

What Meillassoux terms the ‘arche-fossil’ or ‘The Ancestral Realm’, forms the basis of his attack on post-Kantian correlationism – the notion that we can only know the world as it is perceived. As scientific discovery and technological advancement have increased, divisions between mind and body, phenomenological bracketing and noumena have become the stuff of tired academic lessons. Philosophy has become the dogmatic study of ‘ephemeralities’ ghost of thoughts propounded by dead men. The Anglo-American, or Analytical school of philosophy has exhausted the limits of Wittgenstein, who in turn reduced Kant’s legacy to a discussion of statements. The study of thinking, metaphysics, ethics, all become boiled down to a series of logical relations, dependent on science for its existence, which it gave birth to as ‘natural philosophy’ (brilliantly described by Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle).

Continental Philosophy dredged literature and art for its material, following Walter Benjamin and the Frankfurt School. Meillassoux abandons this retreat, instead insisting on the existence of ‘ancestral time’, a knowable state of the world absent of human life. Ennis summarises one argument as follow, that if “anything in our world can be depended on it is that the sun will rise: that it is necessary for the sun to rise. Meillassoux retorts that the necessitarian inference is a piece of mathematical probabilistic reasoning.

Should the world suddenly end, the human world, our part in this universe would be over. Meillassoux embraces the scientific perspective of the observer-less model of existence. In effect this change in European thought represents a rejection of post-modernism, an assertion of mathematical absolutes. Philosophy has traded in a sort of backdoor theism for too long, as well as a sycophantic devotion to science (all in aid of preserving its territory over academic discourse) – Meillassoux rejects both in favour of a philosophical model that can accomodate hard science.

This is an excellent introduction to a fascinating new development in philosophical thinking.

With thanks to Zero Books for my review copy.

If we are to properly understand women’s oppression in the West today, objectification and sexual performance must be understood as work. The sexual sell is real labour, propping up a socially mandated measure of erotic capital. From the working hours devoted to the purchase and strategic application of clothes and hair and beauty products, to the actual labour of dieting and exercise, to the creation and maintenance of sexual persona, self-objectification is work, first and foremost. Female sexuality, which every day becomes increasingly synonymous with objectification, is work.

Yesterday afternoon I was in my favourite sandwich shop in Bondi Junction, enjoying my avocado and salami while reading my book when I overheard an interesting radio advert. Two women are casually talking to each other and one says “You’re looking tired.” I must have zoned out at that point, because when the ad suddenly jumped to the name of a plastic surgeon, I realized that looking ‘tired’, apparently requires going under the knife now. What a wonderful world we live in!

Meat Market is Laurie Penny‘s first published work of critical commentary – of many I hope. It joins an impressive amount of journalistic writing, which can be found on her blog Penny Red, as well as The Guardian and New Statesman. Penny presents an overarching assessment of how many conflicting issues facing women today, from the continuing commodification of the bodies of women to the fragmenting within feminist ideology itself.

As such Meat Market is not a feminist work that continues to spell out basic tenets of the movement, already fought over for decades, instead challenging the complacency surrounding such notions as patriarchal society, or the modern liberated woman. “Why are we so afraid of women’s bodies“, she asks, that peculiar loathing for the female form in culture which demands it be plucked free of hairs, nipped, tucked and starved. I am reminded of Julia Kristeva’s theory of the abject. However, this trend is highly visible in contemporary society and not an idea limited to academic journals about the unconscious.

Penny identifies the constant focus on feminine appearance as a form of labour, one which necessitates a state of constant anxiety. Far from being liberated, women today face an increasing set of prohibitions on their behaviour. Feminism itself is blamed for any societal trend that is considered bad, such as the breakdown of the family, or even teenage drunkenness. So how could it be said that female liberation has occurred?

It is this notion of everyday ‘labour’, that the author uses to investigate the hypocrisy of attitudes towards sex workers. Pornography has replaced natural sexuality in the minds of many, burlesque commodified from an ironic vision of the aristocracy to a commercial entertainment, the fetishised female form a marketing device for every product under the sun – and yet women who sell their own bodies are viewed with contempt, denied basic protections under the law. The prostitute is denied any agency in the media, described variously as drug addicted, or innately criminal.

Feminism has failed to address the rights of the sex worker, even as luminaries such as Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel have failed to acknowledge the status of transsexuals. Instead mainstream transphobia is indulged, gender reassignment surgery seen as a lifestyle choice that undermines the aims of feminist ideology. Penny points out that such a stance fails to consider women who are intersex and that by refusing to defend the rights of transsexuals, those who seek relief from their feelings of body dysmorphia are left at the mercy of the medical establishment.

Penny also discusses the treatment of anorexia in the media, which only reinforces the myth that women (as well as a growing percentage of men) begin to starve themselves out of a desire to appear more sexually attractive. To counter this claim she includes testimony from several anorexics describing how they in fact desired to eliminate any trace of femininity from their bodies, while newspapers feature the images of ‘size zero models‘.

The author insists that feminism must rediscover its political impetus and give recognition to the women whose lives are spent working on multiple fronts, as well as engage men who have become disempowered themselves.

This book presents a compelling argument for the reassessment of feminist values, as well as the need to challenge the false consciousness of modern men and women. Personally charged invective that demands to be heard. I read over underlined passages repeatedly after finishing the book.

With thanks to Zer0 Books for my review copy.

And so the blog, like its name, is a mongrel. Its genes come from a long lineage of campaigning reporting and old Fleet Street hackery. But it also contains the DNA of an entirely new breed of “citizen journalism” – researching, publishing and marketing from the kitchen table. The question remained: could a blogger with no investigations budget, no marketing spend and – at the beginning – precious few readers ever have any influence? Can journalism take place without a newspaper?

Yesterday I was privileged to have the opportunity to interview John Pilger, currently promoting¬† his documentary The War You Don’t See. The film itself is fascinating, featuring previously untelevised footage of armed conflict (and the aftermath) in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. Above all it presents an impassioned argument defending the integrity and necessity for investigative journalism. Disillusionment with corporate takeovers of media outlets and political analysis that is openly partisan have led us to the era of Wikileaks, where raw data has replaced the function of the journalist, or the broadcaster who can be trusted to relay the news to the public.

It is therefore serendipitous that I should pick Brendan Montague’s book to read today, with all these thoughts about freedom of the press and the proliferation of political propaganda in recent years bouncing around in my head. Montague was a former Fleet Street journalist who started his own blog in lieu of approaching sundry defanged newspapers with his hat out looking for a job. Unlike many other bloggers he had the training and discipline from working a newsroom desk and doorstepping sources. Another distinguishing feature of his blog, The Sauce, was that it came from a leftist perspective, freed from the politically right drift of the mainstream press (or the likes of Guido Fawkes in the blogosphere).

Ultimately what Montague is describing in this collection of pieces previously featured on The Sauce is quite similar to Pilger’s argument in his latest film – the complete collapse of journalistic objectivity. However, The Sauce embraces the opportunities offered by this abandonment of unbiased reporting in the press, by releasing critical articles that are not above suggesting how Friedrich Engels could apply to global warming for example. Montague found a curious freedom online that was denied to him by the compromised paper and ink brigade.

Many of the items featured here identify stories that were either ignored for being considered too sensitive, or were not treated of enough. The Global Financial Crisis, rather than ushering in an opportunity to review from first principles the circumstances that had led to disaster, instead was used as a smokescreen to justify massive cut-backs and lay-offs of staff, all the while continuing with the same methods of profiteering that led to the crisis in the first place. Then there was the disturbing resurgence of support in Britain for the BNP. Montague contrasts the macho posturing of the party and its leader when delivering racist screeds against immigrants and naturalised Britons, with his reaction to an organised protest of his policies witnessed by the blogger: Nick Griffin, who has denied the Holocaust and wants a white-only Britain, was ashen faced. There was terror in his eyes. He quaked like a child.

He describes how the death of Ian Tomlinson, who happened to be walking past a protest rally, would have been spun with the full co-operation of the mainstream media as the result of ‘mob violence’, where it not for the intervention of a witness on the scene who just happened to film the event and released it. Another piece reveals how former MP Tony Benn was himself questioned for possessing a camera, under new anti-terrorist legislation. The threat of citizen journalism has made all civilians possible targets for questioning.

One major story that happened to involve Montague personally was the News of the World phone-hacking scandal. Currently still on-going, with many who are suspected to have been involved still in the clear for now, Montague’s own story was hacked while he was in the process of negotiating the sale of a story. He concludes that the phone hacking is a consequence of the lowered standards of journalism, as a result of staff-cuts and the neglect of sources. In lieu of working to prove a story, newspapers would rather violate privacy in order to secure a front-page.

A Year on the Sauce presents a politically astute and informed perspective on the threats facing legitimate journalism today. A refreshing and inspired critique.

With thanks to Zero Books for my review copy.

 

This suffocating indebtedness (along with the fear of terrorism) is the closets the UK population comes to having a collective identity. We hold our breath while a few oligarchs suck in the oxygen, even though we’re supposedly “all in it together” (“it’s up to all of us”).

Today’s author is described on the Zer0 Books website as having previously worked as a “cappuccino frother, data enterer, trainee teacher, cashier, mail sorter, jobseeker, factory drone, warehouse operative, writer, street sweeper, audio tester and care worker“. In my time jaunting around the world between different temp jobs I have ticked off at one time or another almost every single one of the same ‘career paths’, with the exception of trainee teacher and care worker. I think my parents between them held down five jobs in total. I have already had double that number of positions over the past fifteen years or so.

Of course in the 90’s this was described as the bright future of my generation, employees having won the opportunity to change their careers multiple times, upskill, diversify and so on. The idea of long service pensions, health care contributions and emergency leave already seems like a mirage.

Southwood’s discussion as regards the relationship between employees and ‘their’, jobs advances through a series of stages, opening with a critical assessment of worker rights in society – where the notion of a trade, or a job with any sense of ownership has been deconstructed in favour of continual movement between jobs, or the imminent loss of work, a state defined here as ‘precarity‘ – before engaging the reader with the personal perspective of the author as regards living on a meagre wage, having to pay off large amounts of debt and the dissolution of unemployment assistance from the state. As such Non-Stop Inertia is no theoretical academic treatise that remains at a remove from the material. Southwood presents himself as a case-study of how this modern form of personal insecurity is all-pervasive and psychologically detrimental.

At one point Southwood bemusedly comments that writing this book may affect his future job prospects, but then of course there is little likelihood that the jargon-spouting temp agency recruiters he has to meet with will have read it.

The current digital age has produced what is wittily described here as ‘cultural stagflation‘ – continuous stimulation, with no genuine possibility of action. Twenty-first century popular media is designed to titillate and excite, but not engage or challenge. Similarly the workplace is a site of constant activity, but little chance of any sense of achievement. Instead workers are encouraged to compete for positions that will soon be outsourced – “Predictable income, savings, the fixed category of “occupation”: all belong to another historical world.” In an insidious inversion of existentialist psychology employees are told that they must choose their futures, even as their options become increasingly limited – the individual has become a function of profit.

Southwood’s experience as a temp overlap with his having to apply for jobseeker’s allowance. He describes how the Tory government of the early 1990’s redefined the job exchange as a despiriting, compulsory process of constant assessment, one which in turn become increasingly precarious. The era of New Labour continued to carry the ball, increasingly limiting the concept of British social welfare. In the media crime and sundry social malaises are blamed on families who remain on the dole – with the attendant counter-point that working families can barely make ends meet rarely addressed.

Another strand of discussion is how trade unionism and worker’s rights generally are being undercut. The concept of the ‘Virtual Assistant‘, is introduced, in effect an out-of-office P.A. who must compete for assignments from his/her ‘clients’, but has little to no rights. If the V.A. is unable to work, whether it be due to maternity leave, or illness, a competitor simply takes their place. Once again, to be able to work from home is sold as the greatest form of freedom, whereas Southwood observes it as being completely unsupported and unguaranteed employment. The Virtual Assistant is the epitome of temping culture, which threatens to erode the capacity of trade unions to represent their members. After all, if employees can be replaced by short-term workers, the unions have not only lost members, they are unable establish representation.

Rounding off this incisive and intelligently paced critique, Southwood addresses various methods of resisting the debilitating effects of job insecurity. This jack of all trades can now add ‘author’, to his C.V.

With thanks to Zer0 Books for my review copy.

 

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