To overstate the influence of punk culture on my little life is not possible. Through BMX and skateboarding I absorbed the do-it-yourself, damn-the-man attitude of punk rock. I got to the music a little late, but Minor Threat, 7Seconds, Naked Raygun, and others made me think about things differently. Way differently. It’s the music, to be sure, but it’s so much more than that. Talking about it feels corny and writing about it feels worse, but these three books explore it well and in three very different ways.
If it weren’t for my early zine-making and review-writing, I might never have become a writer. Gerfried Ambrosh might say the same thing. His doctoral dissertation is now a book. The Poetry of Punk (Routledge, 2018) is a vivisection of the deep tissue of the language of punk rock. Poetry is certainly not the first thing associated with punk as a genre, but lyrical meaning is as important as any other aspect of the music. Traditionally punk is protest music, so the angry vocals carry lyrics that were often written with rhetorical intent. The Poetry of Punk is the product of experience, extensive research, and several dozen interviews with punk lyricists of all sorts.
“Punk is about making a statement,” Ambrosh contends. Having been in many hardcore punk bands himself (e.g., Carnist, Momentum, etc.), he knows.
Punk has given me a lot of friends I’ve known only through the mail or online. I’ve been in touch with Gerfried for a few years, and I’ve been getting mail from Jessica Hopper since my own zine days. Hers is a name I’ve known for over 25 years. I still remember the first flier for her publicity company I got, with the name spelled out in Scrabble tiles. She’s since written about everyone who matters for everyone who matters, a lot of which is compiled in her last book, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic (Featherproof, 2015).
In her latest, Night Moves (University of Texas Press, 2018), Hopper gets more poetic, more personal, and more autobiographical than ever before. Described as a love letter to Chicago, Night Moves chronicles Hopper’s punk rock nights in the city, riding bikes to shows, watching the times and the neighborhoods change. It’s part memoir, part autoethnography, part urban study, Night Moves is not all about Chicago, but the city’s shadow is on all of these pages. I currently live in the area where the majority of the book takes place, so it’s not only fun to read an old friend’s stories but also to be familiar with the streets, corners, and clubs she’s writing about (See map).
Here’s an excerpt from a St. Vincent show on April 14, 2007:
The people in front and in back of us, older daters; others, proactively tweemo. But next to us, boy-girl braces-faces on a giddy date. Then five drunk douches filled out the rest of our row. When Annie came on stage in her wrinkly school uniform via Balenciaga hot-ensemb, the show-talkers, who were obviously “in their cups” as they used to say, were yakking loud like they were trying to be heard over the sound of the Green Line train pulling into the station. One of the guys yelled in Borat-voice “I Like!,” and someone else wolf-whistled. Annie did not blink, she just pile-drove some din and some fancy-free hammer-on into our faces.
Unlike Gerfried Ambrosh and Jessica Hopper, Les Hinton came up in the old-school newspaper trade. A contemporary of Rupert Murdoch, Hinton spent 50 years as a reporter. In turn, An Untidy Life (Scribe, 2018) reports on reporting, digging further into not just the news but the newsmakers, from the Beatles to the Clintons, from Bob Dylan to Princess Diana. Almost all of Hinton’s stories contain era-defining events, the kind of media moments every writer waits for, looks for, longs for. Among many other things, Hinton describes the night he had a beer with Sid Vicious in Memphis, another where he went to CBGB’s with Johnny Rotten and unknowingly chatted up Johnny Ramone, and the morning he arrived in the lobby of the Hotel Chelsea just as Vicious was being carted out, cuffed under suspicion of stabbing Nancy Spungen, whose dead body was upstairs in his bathroom. An Untidy Life isn’t all punk-rock dive bars and dishing dirt, but the stories are all told from the front row.
If it weren’t for punk, I don’t know who I’d be. If it weren’t for writing, I don’t know who I’d be either. One is about as important as the other. In very different ways, these three books illustrate that over and over again.
There has never been a better time to get off-line, soothe your spirit, and build your brain with a stack of books. We’re back again with reading recommendations for just that. This year, our 15th, we have ideas from newcomers Nisi Shawl, Veronica Fitzpatrick, and Penni Jones, as well as the return of Rick Moody, Douglas Rushkoff, Cynthia Connolly, André Carrington, Matthew Kirschenbaum, Zizi Papacharissi, Jussi Parikka, Peter Lunenfeld, Joseph Nechvatal, Lily Brewer, Dominic Pettman, Paul Levinson, Brian Tunney, Mike Daily, Paul D. Miller, Alex Burns, and myself. We know what you’ll read this summer!
As ever, the book links below lead to the title at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, the best bookstore on the planet. Read on!
“Summer reading” will forever conjure the halcyon months after I graduated college. Condensed milk lattes and serial killers; my metabolism may have changed but my taste in therapeutic pleasure reading is evergreen.
I just reread The Likeness (Penguin, 2009), the second of Tana French’s Dublin murder squad novels. The series is literary catnip for international police procedural enthusiasts, but the real draw is French’s focus on the intimacy and perceptual acuity of detection. Her books are populated with eyebrow hitches and side-cut glances, all the little ways people read each other and give themselves away. This one is about a doomed undercover op set among reclusive The Secret History-style grad students—thus my favorite, and a fine place to start.
Before that was Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends (Hogarth, 2017), the merits of which are hard to describe without sounding unduly condescending (“more than the sum of its parts!”). If the premise of an affair seems simple, and the prose style minimal (plus texting transcripts), Conversations is plenty complex and abundant in original insights re: interiority, hooking up, and radical politics, plus it’s a real, rare pleasure to read young women described and describable as wielding “a remorseless intelligence.”
Finally: the only book(s) adjacent to travel I want to read are L.S. Hilton’s Maestra series (so far Maestra [Putnam, 2016] and Domina [Putnam, 2017]), which follow a young female sociopath with an extensive art history education and impeccable style, sort of American Psycho on the Rome leg of Eat, Pray, Love with more niche sex clubs. And every coming-of-age novel I picked up in the last year, I read out of the pain of missing Elif Batuman’s romantic Ivy League epic The Idiot (Penguin, 2017).
Bernard Stiegler The Neganthropocene (edited and translated by Daniel Ross; Open Humanities Press, 2018): In the essays and lectures here titled Neganthropocene, Stiegler opens an entirely new front moving beyond the dead-end “banality” of the Anthropocene. Stiegler stakes out a battleplan to proceed beyond, indeed shrugging off, the fulfillment of nihilism that the era of climate chaos ushers in.
Maria Stavrinaki Dada Presentism: An Essay on Art and History (Stanford University Press, 2016): Dada is often celebrated for its strategies of shock and opposition, but in Dada Presentism, Maria Stavrinaki provides a new picture of Dada art and writings as a lucid reflection on history and the role of art within it.
Jonathan Fineberg Modern Art at the Border of Mind (University of Nebraska Press, 2015): Modern Art at the Border of Mind and Brain is a broad investigation by one of the foremost scholars of modern art of the relationship between modern art and the structure of the mind and brain. Based on Fineberg’s Presidential Lectures at the University of Nebraska, this book examines the relationship between artistic production, neuroscience, and the way we make meaning in form.
I have such a delightful summer and fall lined up that I’m feeling a great deal of gratitude. I expect some of the things I’m going to read will reinforce that feeling. As usual, my habits are geared toward nonfiction:
Jenifer Lewis The Mother of Black Hollywood (Amistad, 2017): I bought this in audiobook format, because I love her voice. From interviews, I think this will be a truly humbling and inspiring read about her extraordinary career and the challenges she’s faced with bipolar disorder.
Mamadou Dia 3052: Persiguiendo un Sueño (Hahatay, 2017): The story of the author’s life from Senegal to Spain. Every couple years, I try my best to make it through a book in Spanish; this one, recommended by my esteemed colleague Dr. Jeffrey Coleman, is a little hard to find stateside, so I might have to take a field trip.
The Good House (Washington Square Press, 2004) is prime Tananarive Due. It’s horror, but of the redemptive sort, and deals with a particularly African American issue: the violent deaths of our young men.
Elysium, by Jennifer Marie Brisset (Aqueduct Press, 2014), is a gorgeously elegiac tale of love and planetary cleansing, told in cleverly overlapping narratives that gradually reveal what has been saved and lost over the numberless eons covered. It’s a swift read, but a deep one.
A Stranger in Olondria, by Sofia Samatar (Small Beer Press, 2013), is a nearly perfect sojourn in an imaginary land. It reminds me very much of early Ursula K. Le Guin.
I have been reading a lot of poetry recently, in part because I have been co-teaching a class at Brown called Writers on Writing that’s half prose and half poetry. I taught this course in the spring with the poet Sawako Nakayasu, whose book The Ants (Les Figues Press, 2014) would be on any list of contemporary collections I really love. (It’s about ants!) In the fall I’m teaching with the excellent Monica de la Torre, whose Public Domain (Roof Books, 2008) is likewise a contemporary poetry must-read.
Whereas, by Layli Long Soldier (Graywolf Press, 2017) was the last book we read for class in the spring, and I’m still thinking it through. It’s sort of half experimental poetry, half incredibly powerful and moving critique of official governmental responses to the treatment of indigenous peoples in the United States of America. The experimental part demonstrates the struggle of First Peoples to deal with the oppressor tongue of American culture in a way that seems unique to me. What a great and powerful book.
Don Mee Choi’s Hardly War (Wave Books, 2016) came to my attention through Monica, and it is in part about Don Mee Choi’s father’s photographs of wars and conflicts in Southeast Asia. (The author is Korean, but her father, as a photographer, ranged as far as Cambodia, as I understand the story so far.) Photos are included in the text. Again, there’s a mixture of poetical methods here, far more than in a conventionally “confessional” work. The poems are sly, funny, devastating. Don Mee Choi’s voice is a knowing, tragic, and comic thing that orbits around the work in ways that deepen and complexify the field of investigation.
David Grubbs is my friend and occasional collaborator (and I can’t overlook to mentioned his first book, a work of criticism called Records Ruin the Landscape [Duke University Press, 2014] that I admire a great deal), and an unparalleled musician, above all, but his first book of “poetry” is now out, a book-length prose poem called Now That the Audience is Assembled (Duke University Press, 2018), which is sort of a long meditation on experimental music making and the ekphrastic route through which one might describe such an endeavor. I have used quotation marks to describe the work as “poetry” simply because I think there’s such a great area of hybrid activity between prose and poetry these days that things that people are describing as poems to me are also very conventionally be understood as “prose” as well. Grubbs’s book might also be understood as music! It’s an incredibly promising and funny first imaginative work by an artist who seems able to produce in almost any medium.
Mark Haskell Smith Blown (Grove Press, Black Cat, 2018): I’ve been a big fan of Mark Haskell Smith for about eleven years. His novels are clever and fun, with one-word titles packed with innuendo. His protagonists are often regular folks who find themselves plunged into worlds where they don’t belong. The stakes are high and the outcomes are hilariously subversive.
Ariel Gore We Were Witches (Amethyst Editions, 2017): Gore’s raw honesty while challenging the status quo is enlightening and inspirational. Her latest release is a “memoirist-novel” that draws on her experience as a struggling artist and single teenage mother in a time when the phrase “family values” was synonymous with women like her being demoralized and demonized.
Christopher Buckley No Way to Treat a First Lady (Random House, 2002): I read several of Buckley’s political satire novels in rapid succession of seeing the movie Thank You for Smoking which was based on his 1994 novel of the same title. Somehow I missed No Way to Treat a First Lady, which is about a United States first lady on trial for murdering her philandering husband. For some reason the plot is very attractive to me right now.
Alexandra Sokoloff Stealing Hollywood (Amazon Digital Services, 2015): This book is meant to arm authors with screenwriting tricks that will strengthen and simplify novel writing. Is it too good to be true? I’ll let you know.
Charles Salzberg Second Story Man (Down & Out Books, 2018): If Salzberg’s previous works are any indication, this novel won’t disappoint. Second Story Man is a crime caper with alternating points-of-view between two lawmen and a master burglar. The criminal taunts the men who are hunting him as the stakes grow higher. Sounds like the perfect beach read to me!
I’m writing at least half a dozen things right now, with no time for reading, but here are three recommendations, all fiction, of books I’ve recently finished and much enjoyed:
Peter Watts’ The Freeze-Frame Revolution (Tachyon) was [is due to be] officially published on June 12, but I was fortunate to get an advance copy. Watts is a gifted science fiction writer, with a knack for combining disparate threads of science rooted in hard-as-nails science, and he does this par excellence in his latest novel. This time it’s far-future humans far away from Earth, in a tense web woven of AI, biology, cyberpunk in the flesh and robots with music. Not only that, the novel is just 192 pages.
Heather, the Totality (Little, Brown, 2017) is also short – 134 pages – and is written by someone, Matthew Weiner, whose work you may well know in a very different medium, television. Weiner brings the same incisive understanding of the underside of human nature he brought to The Sopranos and Mad Men to this explosive little novel, which sports only one line of actual dialog. What’s it about it? Here’s what I’ll tell you: A few months ago, I noticed a guy eyeing a woman in a supermarket parking lot. It happened very quickly, and I stayed in my car until the woman got safely into hers and drove away. As I drove back on the highway, I realized there was something, I don’t know, really angry in his gaze, certainly more than just appreciation. That’s the ignition point for Heather, when her Manhattan father notices a construction worker ogling his 14-year old daughter.
And I’ll complete this triad by highly recommending for your summer reading pleasure Come Out Tonight by Bonnie Rozanksi (Amazon Digital Services, 2011; whose The Mind Traveler appeared on my list last year). This one’s not that short – more than 200 pages – and every page is worth reading. It’s mostly a police mystery, with a dash of science fiction, when a top-notch researcher working on a powerful new sleeping aid is savagely assaulted and left in a vegetative state. Her boyfriend, her father, and all manner of suspects abound, and Rozanski brings her unerring eye for New York detail to this story, noting how, after a subway car pulls out of Grand Central, it “futzes around” for a few minutes. Don’t futz around regarding this novel — snap it up!
Ordinarily, when invited to contribute to my husband’s famed Summer Reading List, I include more books, more force, more flourish; this summer, in between and during stops on my way to L.A. through Reno from Houston for my yearly research and exhibition road trip in preparation for my dissertation, my list becomes shorter and shorter. This is that short list.
My immediate reading right now is Johanna Drucker’s The General Theory of Social Relativity (The Elephants, 2018). Drucker will be known to some as a book artist, to others as a scholar of modernist art, to still others as a leading figure in the digital humanities community. Here, however, in this short chapbook, she is a diagnostician of the contemporary public sphere. Heady title notwithstanding, Drucker’s focus is squarely on the everyday of our collective media and discourse, both united under the rubric of what she terms aesthetics. Like other writers (Angela Nagle, #recentcontroversiesdulynoted) she seeks to dismantle the notion that there is anything inherently progressive in art or aesthetics, or that associated leftist tactics can in any simple, causal, or mechanistic way constitute a “resistance.” Instead, Drucker turns toward an account of cultural phenomena as “extrusions” or “manifestations” of our swirling, affective engagement with an all-consuming and resolutely non-partisan media spectrum. The key term to emerge here is the phantasmatic: no mere simulacrum, but the metastasizing of meme into reality fabric. In this there are also sympathies with the “eversion” hypothesis, a word William Gibson first introduced in Spook Country (Penguin/Viking, 2007) to describe the virtual’s quotidian intrusion into the real world, so-called. Likewise, Drucker offers a direct critique of digital dualism, the notion that what’s on our screens is somehow less real than our (somehow?) more authentic analog surroundings. By contrast, screen and the everyday now co-constitute the real, held together by the quantum gel of the social, presented here not as relation but as medium, a medium which one doesn’t have to be Einstein to see the Commander-in-Cheese has mastered. (Don’t like the thought of quantum gel? Call it covfefe instead.) This one is essential, folks.
Following the Drucker, my next project will likely be Justin Joque’s Deconstruction Machines: Writing in the Age of Cyberwar (University of Minnesota Press, 2018). I mean, come on, Justin, you had me at deconstruction, machines, writing, and cyberwar! Starting with the brute-simple observation that what contemporary militaries dub cyberwar or netwar is carried via malignant computer code—which is to say texts that literally take things apart (think Stuxnet)—Joque asks what it means to entertain the weaponization of a philosophy, namely the book’s titular deconstruction. Also on deck are a brace of books from the MIT Press’s Essential Knowledge series, Nick Montfort’s The Future (2017) and Amaranth Borsuk’s The Book (2018).These entries are intended to provide fast and accessible but critically engaged introductions to a topic; still, the secret (don’t tell) is that one reads such books at least as much for their author as for their individual subject matter, and such is the case here. Tar for Mortar (Punctum Books, 2018), meanwhile, is still another short chapbook, Jonathan Basile’s archaeology of Borges’s multitudinous Library of Babel (Basile having also programmed a computer simulation of same). Speaking of multitudes, Chicago’s Interacting with Print (2018) volume bills itself as a multigraph: a monograph-length book collectively authored by some two dozen leading scholars of nineteenth century print culture and book history, composed with a wiki so as to interleave their expert voices rather than produce the standard edited collection. Finally, my colleague Tita Chico’s monograph The Experimental Imagination just out from Stanford, offers a historicized account of the entanglement of literature and science during the Enlightenment, a period when (she argues) the language of the one co-created the discourse of the other—a story that is all the more relevant now that the science wars have been phantasmatically mobilized.
This summer I am returning to a book that has been reissued. Giuliana Bruno’s Atlas of Emotion came out in 2002 but was out of print for a long period, and Verso has now republished it. Bruno’s work is a great example of the methodological innovation that I also read as inspiring “media archaeological” work: moving across art history, architecture and built environments, gender, cinema and many other contexts. And it is beautifully written. This time round I am reading it in a specific context of (media) archaeologies of fashion, which relates to our AHRC-funded project on the fashion film.
Another inspiring scholar, Matthew Fuller, has a new book out on sleep (How to Sleep: The Art, Biology and Culture of Unconsciousness; Bloomsbury Academic, 2018). Jonathan Crary’s 24/7 (Verso, 2014) came out some years ago, but Fuller’s book is clearly following the same footsteps and has opens up with this wonderful outline of the book’s aim: “Sleep is quite a popular activity, indeed most humans spend around a third of their lives asleep. However, cultural, political, or aesthetic thought tends to remain concerned with the interpretation and actions of those who are awake.”
David Parisi’s Archaeologies of Touch (University of Minnesota Press, 2018) is also on my reading list in the pile of books unofficially labelled “things media archaeological” – also Susan Murray’s new book on the history of the color television – Bright Signals (Duke University Press, 2018) — can be broadly said to belong to the same category of interesting takes that deal with media history, perception and technicity.
I am reading Joanna Zylinska’s Nonhuman Photography (MIT Press, 2017) too as I am in the midst of preparing a project proposal on Operative Images. Eric Alliez and Maurizio Lazzarato’s book War and Capital (Semiotext(e), 2018) arrived recently in the mail and is one of the books I aspire to read. In order to understand contemporary capitalism, one studies it as a military operation. Next one on my reading list is Janine Marchessault’s Ecstatic Worlds: Media, Utopias, Ecologies (MIT Press, 2017) that came out last year already but I am a bit late to reading it. Besides being interested in what it says about ecology and the Cold War, I think it might have good points useful for our Lab Book project, a book about humanities and media labs that in many ways go back to the Cold War (as a forthcoming book by Ryan Bishop and John Beck argues well). And today I learned that the English translation of Markus Krajewski’s The Server (Yale University Press, 2018) is out. Translated by Ilinca Iurascu, the book is one key reference point in the German cultural techniques literature and outlines a cultural history of servantry from the technological point of view too.
This summer I have five books out. So, I will happily be spending time away from books, computers, and reading.
But, here’s what I read in the process, and highly recommend:
Rod Hart Civic Hope:How Ordinary Americans Keep Democracy Alive(Cambridge University Press, 2018): A prescient analysis of letters to the editor, dating back to the fifties. Reminds how much and how little, at the same time, things have changed in politics. Beautifully written; a love letter to democracy.
Svetlana Boym The Future of Nostalgia (Basic Books, 2002) Perhaps you read this when it first came out. Reread and realize how every idea of yours you thought original, she wrote about decades ago.
Chris Nashawaty Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story (Flatiron Books, 2018): My father has this strange Rodney Dangerfield as cartoon character statue in his house that speaks some of his most infamous lines. Amid piles of CDs and videos, old assortments and antiques, this Rodney Dangerfield animated doll thing stands out as a reminder that my father kinda raised myself and my brothers on Rodney Dangerfield’s comedy and movies. From Easy Money to the long sought after record Rappin’ Rodney, Dangerfield’s character was used as a basis for my father to relate to his sons.
Granted, not the best role model, or traditional form or father-son relations, but it encapsulated something we’re still able to relate on all these years later. I believe that fascination with the comedian began with his appearance in Caddyshack, and to this day, whenever it’s on TV, I pretty much put everything aside and watch it.
Also to this day, it’s quite apparent that the movie makes little to no sense at all. As it would happen, that belief stretches far beyond anything I could have ever imagined. In April 2018, writer Chris Nashawaty released the book Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story, and I quickly read through it within a few days of buying it.
Beginning with the story of National Lampoon magazine, followed by the writing and creation of Animal House, the book tracks the story of the writers and director as they take life experience (and lack thereof), lighting in a bottle moments that featured young comedic legends in the making and all of the behind the scenes mayhem that formed the basis for the movie. I won’t divulge much here, except that I was correct in assuming that the movie makes little to no sense, and that the finished product was the result of editing down a rough four and a half hour cut into something that could be bought and sold in Hollywood.
With the addition of an animatronic gopher, large improvisational bits from Bill Murray and more than few drunken blowups from the cast and staff, the movie ultimately went from critical disaster to earning over $30 million at the box office.
It also pushed a 57-year-old Rodney Dangerfield out of Vegas and into the movie business. Though Dangerfield didn’t think he was funny during the filming of the movie (because the director’s staff couldn’t laugh at him while filming), he went on to foster an odd father-son relationship for myself, my dad and my brothers.
Walter Issacson’s Steve Jobs (Simon & Schuster, 2011) is what my kids used to tease me about as a “big fattie” summer read. I’m long overdue to grapple with this book as part of understanding the links between neoliberalism and what I’m calling the California Design Ideology.
As for the rest of the summer, I want to catch up with the recent output of friends and colleagues who I can’t keep up with during the year.
I still need to read rather than browse Johanna Drucker’s Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production (Harvard University Press, 2014) which is just what it sounds like, an analysis of the ways in which how we see affects the ways that we come to know. Johanna came out with not one but two more books in the spring of 2018: Downdrift (Three Rooms Press, 2018) is an eco-fiction that begins with the voice of an Archaean, “the most ancient creature on earth”; The General Theory of Social Relativity (The Elephants, 2018) melds quantum physics with social analysis. Given that I can’t understand how quickly the global polity has deteriorated in the past one thousand days, I’m open to new paradigms.
Todd Presner, David Shepard and Yoh Kawano’s Hypercities: Thick Mapping in the Digital Humanities (Harvard University Press, 2014) joins Jeffrey Schnapp and Matthew Battles’ The Library Beyond the Book (Harvard University Press, 2014) as titles in and around digital humanities that I want to follow as a reminder that ars longa, vita brevis, and that (I hope) certain political winds are briefer still.
Geert Lovink and Ned Rossiter’s new book Organization after Social Media (Minor Compositions, 2018) wants us to construct “social technologies based on enduring time” and value action over weak ties. The .01% knows that likes and followers are nice, but what moves the world and the art world (at least right now) is cold, hard cash. Andrea Fraser’s bespoke big data project, 2016 in Museums, Money, and Politics (MIT Press, 2018), is a brick of a book designed by the wonderful Geoff Kaplan. It organizes the deep research that Fraser put in to understand exactly how culture and power intersect by looking in detail at the political contributions by board members at more than 125 of the most important museums showing contemporary art in the United States.
Bruce Sterling’s Pirate Utopia (Tachyon, 2016) also interrogates culture’s tortured relationship with power, but from a deiselpunk perspective, creating an alternative past in which the Futurists take over the Regency of Carnaro to wreck havoc on their enemies. It was a nominee for the 2016 Sidewise Award, Best Short-Form Alternate History. In my alternate history, it won.
Finally, there’s Made Up: Designs Fictions, edited by Tim Durfee and Mimi Zeiger (Actar, 2018), which I’d recommend even if I didn’t have a short piece in it. Caveat lector should be the motto for all summer reading lists, in any case.
Michael Fallon Creating the Future: Art and Los Angeles in the 1970s (Counterpoint, 2014): Explains the various art scenes in LA and how that scene always was considered the bastard child of contemporary art in the eyes of the NY art critiques and beyond. It explains how the landscape and place was a strong influence on the art and for my own life, having grown up in LA, I see how much this scene influenced me, even as a child. It has helped me inform my own artwork.
Richard Brautigan The Beatles Lyrics Illustrated (Dell, 1975): I found a battered-but-intact reading copy of this paperback for $5.74, shipping included. Richard Brautigan wrote the Introduction, a short story-like piece of brilliancy not published anywhere else. I always knew that someday I’d get into The Beatles. “She Loves You” (B Side: “I’ll Get You”) mesmerized me at seven years old, much. Oh yeah.
Ronen Givony Jawbreaker’s 24 Hour Revenge Therapy (or, The Strange Death of Selling Out) (Bloomsbury Academic, 2018): I can’t recall if it was Blockbuster, Best Buy, or The Wherehouse that had CD baristas in the mid-’90s. You’d bring shrink-wrapped compact discs to the circular bar/listening station, and they’d open ’em for you. How sophisticated! it felt. Elegant. ‘Twas at one of these retail stores that—while reading the lyrics, of course—I first heard 24 Hour Revenge Therapy (Tupelo Communion Conspiracy Theory, 1994) by Jawbreaker. I already knew I needed to own the album. Unfun (Shredder, 1990) and Bivouac (Tupelo, 1992) were often being spun at high volume in my affordable student housing at the time.
Sam Pink The Garbage Times/White Ibis (Soft Skull Press, 2018): I flipped through the pages of my Verified Amazon Purchase. “Wait. What? Soft Skull is European?” I wondered after noticing single quotation marks for the dialogue in both novellas. I checked one of the copyright pages. “New York, NY.” Phew. Binge-read alert x 2. New Sam Pink.
Rob Plath Swallowtude (Epic Rites Press, 2017): New York poet, novelist, photographer, illustrator, and painter Rob Plath knew Allen Ginsberg. Imagine one of your heroes handing you a bowl of beans and telling you simply to eat. Maybe it was soup. Vegan. Ginsberg passed away in ’97, right around the time I stopped following what was happening on the underground poetry scene. Today, university students in Wales are studying Rob Plath’s writing alongside the work of Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Dan Fante (Plath’s unpublished 2014 interview with Dan Fante will be in the September/October issue of UK ‘s esteemed print Magazine, Cold Lips). I’m excited to read his first novel. Signed copy purchased from the author.
Jane Friedman The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press, 2018): A candid guide to career pathways for (academic) writers, how the publishing industry works, how to build an author platform, the role of entrepreneurship, and diverse money-making strategies. Part of the series Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing.
Annie McClanahan Dead Pledges: Debt, Crisis, and Twenty-First Century Culture (Stanford University Press, 2017): McClanahan is an Assistant Professor at the University of California, Irvine. Austerity and debt have defined the post-2008 socio-economic landscape. This book draws on behavioral economics, cultural analysis, and other disciplines to critically examine the economic, social, and historical transformations in the United States economy – and their impact on contemporary life. Credit, debt, and property speculation now reshape our individual subjectivity: McClanahan contends that these changes are likely to endure in the future.
Arne De Boever Finance Fictions: Realism and Psychosis in a Time of Economic Crisis (Fordham University Press, 2018): De Boever teaches American Studies at the California Institute of the Arts. This book examines how books, film, and other popular culture have communicated to a wider audience the economic realities of the post-2008 world. De Boever finds that black box algorithms have replaced commodities in popular imagination.
David Graeber Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (Simon & Schuster, 2018): Graeber is a Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics who was involved in Occupy Wall Street’s direct action protests. This book expands on Graeber’s 2013 essay “On The Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs” (Strike Magazine) to examine why neoliberal capitalism creates a range of meaningless jobs that its employees know are pointless. Graeber also includes survey responses from international readers on the bullshit jobs they have had to endure, and the creative strategies developed to cope with them.
Suzanne Buffam A Pillow Book (Canarium Books, 2016): Full of anecdotes and lists related to pillows and sleep, Buffam’s book is the perfect before-bed meditation. I read this one at night before I sleep, my head appropriately on my pillow.
Hieu Minh Nguyen Not Here (Coffee House Press, 2018): Nguyen balances words on a page with such heart-pounding delicacy, I can only take a few at a time. These poems feel by turns like they will shatter apart or stab you to death. Either way, they’re honed to a deadly point and pointed right at you. It’s as beautiful as it is painful.
Amos Tutuola and Ben Okri: I was doing research on intertextuality, as you do, and I came across a book comparing the work of Nigerian novelist Ben Okri with those of his forebear Amos Tutuola (the auspiciously titled Intertextuality and the Novels of Amos Tutuola and Ben Okri by Durojaiye Owoeye). I decided to take a closer look. I immediately recognized that Brian Eno and David Byrne ganked the title of their 1982 record from Tutuola’s second novel (My Life in the Bush of Ghosts; faber & faber 1954), which I took as annoying but also as further endorsement. I’ve been reading Tutuola’s books as fast as I can find them, and I’m stacking up Okri’s for after (e.g., The Famished Road, Astonishing the Gods, etc.). Someone—not the authors, of course—called this stuff “magical realism,” and I guess that’ll have to do.
Tade Thompson Rosewater (Orbit Books, 2018): Though I’ve been reading a lot of Nigerian literature lately, I didn’t know Tade Thompson was originally from there (He is Yoruba) when I started reading this. The deft way that Rosewater jumps time periods and switches from the actual to the virtual and back is a sure sign that a steady hand is in control. The story is also mind-expanding. It’s cyberpunk, but it’s also so much more. This is the first book of his Wormwood Trilogy, so there’s thankfully more to come.
Susan Lepselter The Resonance of Unseen Things: Poetics, Power, Captivity, and UFOs in the American Uncanny (University of Michigan Press, 2016): I’ve been researching UFOs and alien abductions for the last several years for no reason other than curiosity, and Lepselter brings together nodes I haven’t seen connected in other books on these topics. Using the possible presence of aliens as an avatar for alienations of all kinds: persistent hauntings, captivity stories, conspiracy theories, uncanny memories. In the end, this is not a book about UFOs and things far away. It’s a book about the aliens at home. It’s a book about the United States.
During my undergraduate days, my friends and I used to play a silly game. Whenever a situation or topic came up and they pointed to me, I would attempt to recite a relevant rap lyric. Sometimes it was a stretch to get Ice-T or the Beastie Boys to fit a late-night Waffle House run, but I was rarely stumped.
As Gorham and Gilligan (2006) put it, “media allusions represent an important way in which audiences make use of the cultural products around them to form relationships with others and build community out of shared media experiences” (p. 3). That is, we determine which texts are appropriate for appropriating and which resonate with the shared beliefs of our community (Linde, 2009). We run around in these collective “textual communities” (Stock, 1983). Members of said communities allude to the same, shared texts in their personal narratives. The shared texts are where we “compare notes” on our collective experiences, as I used to do in college. The fans of a particular cultural artifact (e.g., fans of the band Rush, fans of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, etc.) do not constitute a textual community; textual communities are constituted by their sharing of similar texts in their personal narratives (Linde, 2009). A lot of these texts come from song lyrics.
Sometimes this sharing is called intertextuality, but the term is often misused and abused (Allen, 2000; Irwin, 2004; Orr, 2003; Roudiez, 1980). As originally coined by Julia Kristeva in 1966, the term meant “the transposition of one or more systems of signs into another” (Roudiez, 1980, p. 15; emphasis in original). Therefore, while lyrics, media allusions, and conversational sampling can all be considered intertextual, their intertextuality does not indicate a cohesive system of signs.
Reguardless, intertextuality says there is something outside the text — more texts. Building on Gérard Gennette’s work in art and literature (see Gennette, 1982; 1987; 1994/1997) , The Pop Palimpsest: Intertextuality in Recorded Popular Music (University of Michigan Press, 2018), edited by Lori Burns and Serge Lacasse, aims to explore those texts in popular music. I did my own dissertation research on allusions in rap lyrics, so I immediately gravitated to the chapters on hip-hop: “Rap Gods and Monsters: Words, Music, and Images in the Hip-Hop Intertexts of Eminem, Jay-Z, and Kanye West” by Lori Burns and Alyssa Woods would’ve been invaluable in my earlier research; “Intertextuality and Lineage in The Game’s ‘We Ain’t’ and Kendrick Lamar’s ‘m.A.A.d. City'” by Justin A. Williams also immediately grabbed me; “Mix Tapes, memory, and Nostalogia: An Introduction to Phonographic Analogies” by Serge Lacasse and Andy Bennett overlaps with a couple of new areas of my research.
It’s not all rap lyrics and samples though: Everything from French Vaudville and Neil Young to Genesis, E.L.O., and Eurythmics get a spin. And it’s not all just research either: The Pop Palimpsest is that rare academic collection that’s exhaustively researched and meticulously assembled, but also damn fun to read. The book has inspired dueling desires: I wish it had not only come out earlier but also that I could have contributed.
Allen, Graham. (2000). Intertextuality: The New Critical Idiom. New York: Routledge.
Genette, Gérard. (1982/1997). Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
Genette, Gérard. (1987/1997). Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Genette, Gérard. (1994/1997). The Work of Art: Immanence and Transcendence. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Gorham, B. W. & Gilligan, E. N. (1997, May). And now for something completely different: Media allusions, language, and the practice of everyday life. A paper presented to the Language and Social Interaction division, ICA, Montreal.
“Media literacy” is as socially contested a term as they come. Its meaning of has been debated at least as far back as 1933 (see Tyner, 2010).It’s not difficult to make the case that Marshall McLuhan‘s work in the main was about media literacy. Not to mention Howard Rheingold‘s lengthy and thorough work on new media and social media literacy.
So much has changed and changed hands since McLuhan left us. The computer moved from business and industry to the home and finally to every place and pocket available. In Coding Literacy: How Computer Programming is Changing Writing (MIT Press, 2017), Annette Vee argues that literacy is infrastructural. She explores two phases of its spread. One is where we adopt inscription technologies as material infrastructures. Then, as we adopt those technologies that affect the “quotidian activities of everyday citizens: literacy is adopted as infrastructure” (p. 141). She notes crucially that communicative practices such as writing and programming can manifest as actions and as artifacts. Vee’s approach addresses the social aspects of these literacies (i.e., understanding the actions), as well as their material underpinnings (i.e., understanding the artifacts). It’s an important new view of several serious issues.
Zooming out to the walls, rooms, and roads around us, Shannon Mattern’s Code + Clay… Data + Dirt: Five Thousand Years of Urban Media (University of Minnesota Press, 2017) takes up the mantle of media archaeology and “challenges the newness of the new” by looking back at infrastructure at large — our built environment. Our urban areas are the site of information access as well as media themselves. Citing Malcolm McCullough and echoing McLuhan, She writes, “Our physical landscapes inscribe, transmit, and even embody information–about their histories, their state of repair, their potential uses, and so forth” (p. xii). Mattern’s use of sound, inscription, voice, and code illuminates our environment in a different and generative light.
We academics do a lot of work to justify and perpetuate our own work, a lot of advertising for ourselves. This is not that kind of work. Both of these books are about current situations verging on crises, and both of them take a long, historical view of these situations. There is still much to learn about all of these constructs and all of their relationships. There is an entire network of literacies we all need to learn. Now.
Mattern, Shannon. (2017). Code + Clay… Data + Dirt: Five Thousand Years of Urban Media. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Tyner, Katherine (Ed.). (2010). Media Literacy: New Agendas in Communication. New York: Routledge.
Vee, Annette. (2017). Coding Literacy: How Computer Programming is Changing Writing. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Many thanks to Alison Langmead, Lily Brewer, and the fine folks at the University of Pittsburgh and their Digital Scholarship Services for hosting and allowing me to crash the Willful Transgressions: Transdisciplinary Teaching workshop with Shannon Mattern. It was there that I was able to meet and work briefly with both Shannon and Annette.
William Melvin Kelley’s debut novel, A Different Drummer (Doubleday, 1962), imagines a different America, one where a slave revolt reconfigured the civil war and the nation thereafter. Three weeks before its release, Kelley flipped the term “woke” into its current common parlance in a New York Times Op-Ed piece. His central point was that the African Diaspora was responsible for the cool, “beatnik” slang of the time. One could say the same for hip-hop slang now. Some of it stays in predominantly hip-hop contexts, but quite a lot of it has traveled the wider world at large. As Biggie once rapped, “You never thought that hip-hop would take it this far.”
I dare say it’s gone farther than Big could’ve imagined. In Muslim Cool: Race, Religion, and Hip-Hop in the United States (NYU Press, 2016), Su’ad Abdul Khabeer traces the elusive cool to Africa, arguing that it’s “not the sole purview of U.S. Black American expressive cultures,” but that it is “fundamentally Diasporic” (p. 140). Cool requires detachment. Alterity is inherent in Muslim cool. Raised as a Muslim in the U.S., Khabeer operates as an anthropologist, enabling to both cross boundaries and remain of her subjects. Embedded and embodied, she nonetheless recognizes how these factors mediate her work, writing, “…simply being Muslim was never enough. In fact, my race and ethnicity (Black and Latina), my gender (female), and my regional identity (reppin’ Brooklyn, New York!) as well as my religious community affiliations and my performance of Muslimness mediated my access–how I was seen in the field, what was said to me, and what was kept from me–as well as my own interpretations of my field site” (p. 20). Just being “cool” ain’t always so cool. Sometimes it’s about standing out. Sometimes it’s about fitting in. The diasporic distinction of cool is one of the many things Paul Gilroy points out in The Black Atlantic (1995): History without a consideration of race and place is not history at all. In her ethnographic approach, Khabeer maintains attention to both and then some.
As Gilroy himself puts it, “the old U.S. cultural copyrights on hip-hop have expired.” Along with the rest of the globe, Europe is in the house. Some of the best at it are based over there. Dizzee Rascal is a native and a hip-hop veteran. Fellow East-Coast emcees M. Sayyid and Mike Ladd relocated separately to Paris years ago. Ex-New Flesh for Old emcee Juice Aleem also holds it down in the UK, among countless others. There’s an entire chapter on Aleem in J. Griffith Rollefson’s Flip the Script: European Hip-hop and the Politics of Postcoloniality (University of Chicago Press, 2017). Sometimes to move ahead, you’ve gotta step back first. Rollefson investigates Aleem’s postcolonialism via pre-Enlightenment performative linguistics. It’s an Afrofuturist alternative history via precolonial tricks and tropes, not unlike Kelley’s reimagining in A Different Drummer. Aleem’s signifyin’ is one of many examples of Rollefson’s arguments regarding the postcoloniality of hip-hop.
“Hip-hop has come full circle at present,” South African emcee, Mr. Fat (R.I.P.) once said. “Emcees are like the storytellers of the tribe, graffiti is cave paintings, and the drums of Africa are like turntables: This is our ideology.” (quoted in Neate, 2004, p. 120). Indeed, as hip-hop has moved from around the way to around the world, mapping it requires a deft hand, a def mind, an understanding of the alterity of cool, and a handle on histories other than those in the history books.
Gilroy, Paul. (1995). The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Kelley, William. (1962). A Different Drummer. New York: Doubleday.
Khabeer, Su’ad Abdul. (2016). Muslim Cool: Race, Religion, and Hip-Hop in the United States New York: NYU Press.
Neate, Patrick. (2004). Where You’re At: Notes from the Frontline of a Hip-Hop Planet. New York: Bloomsbury.
As it always does, my to-read stack has already doubled just from compiling and editing this year’s Summer Reading List. Get ready to add to yours, because there’s plenty below that you’re going to have to check out. There are so many books to read and so many ways to read them, you have no excuse not to read every chance you get.
This year we have recommendations from newcomers Paul Edwards, Paul Tremblay, Mark Bould, and Matthew Gold, along with past Summer Reading List contributors Dominic Pettman, Dave Allen, Lance Strate, Alex Burns, Alice Marwick, André Carrington, Patrick Barber, Lily Brewer, Alfie Bown, Charles Mudede, Mike Daily, Brian Tunney, Gerfried Ambrosch, Jussi Parikka, Paul Levinson, Steve Jones, Peter Lunenfeld, and myself. Prepare yourself for a hefty stack of pages with words.
As always the book links on this page will lead to Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon: the biggest and best bookstore on the planet. Read on!
Gabourey Sidibe This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017): I’m already enjoying this a few chapters in, because the chapters read well on short trips. It’s not only funny, it’s genuinely touching. Sidibe has been a breakout star thanks to TV, but what has really flipped the script on her tragic/triumphant character in Precious is her incredible wit. I’m excited to see how she writes about her successes and the setbacks put in her way.
Janet Mock Surpassing Certainty: What My Twenties Taught Me (Atria Books, 2017): I read Redefining Realness (Atria Books, 2014) in like t-minus three days. I was so into Janet Mock’s voice and her ability to move me, as a reader, through times and places while conveying really important principles she’s come to value in her life as a Black trans woman with Native Hawaiian ancestry. The twenty-something memoir is an interesting genre that I hope will help me age into mentoring relationships as I approach my next decade. Mock is already decisive about putting her own life lessons and interests into forms that connect with more and less privileged people, and I expect that she’s even more reflective in this book. Recently, she launched a podcast, Never Before, and the first episode with Ms. Tina Knowles-Lawson was just… poise.
Regina Bradley Boondock Kollage: Stories from the Hip Hop South (Peter Lang, 2017): Regina is a colleague whom I’ve had the distinct honor of befriending earlier this year. I bought this book for my partner, and I’m going to have to get my own, because I need to read these stories as much as anybody else. I made my way through some classic short stories while teaching a course on science fiction, recently, and there was nothing like this that blended hip-hop, Southern everyday life, and race consciousness; there should be, and now, there will be. She’s giving you a voice from the South for the 21st century and beyond.
Mehammed Amadeus Mack Sexagon: Muslims, France, and the Sexualization of National Culture (Fordham University Press, 2017): While it’s hard to keep pace with contemporary criticism, because of the pressure on academics to increase productivity, just like in every other profession, I want to say I’m catching up with people who have done the work in areas I care about. This is a study on desire, the nation, ethnicity, and religion, as well as sex, gender, and sexuality. I’m going through 2017 without knowing if there’s any such thing as loyalty to the field of queer studies. So, for me, it’s important to do work that makes academia a space where we can exist, as desiring people, from marginalized backgrounds, engaged in a dialogue that implicates all of the social formations that claim us.
Simone Browne Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (Duke University Press, 2015): A fantastic and long-overdue intervention, arguing that surveillance practices cannot be understood without interrogating the long history of policing Blackness.
Christo Sims Disruptive Fixation: School Reform and the Pitfalls of Techno-Idealism (Princeton University Press, 2017): Sims spent years inside an experimental NYC public school built around gaming. Its story becomes a cautionary tale of well-meaning tech philanthropy and how idealized educational technology often reinforces the status quo rather than upending it.
Neal Stephenson & Nicole Galland The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. (William Morrow, 2017): I read every Stephenson new release and although I wasn’t a huge fan of Seveneves (William Morrow, 2015) this techno-thriller about an academic, magic, and time travel seems more up my alley.
Reading biographical and historical accounts is one method of time travel, and I also intend to read up on the subject more generally by diving into James Gleick’s Time Travel: A History (Pantheon, 2016). Time being a topic of great interest to me, another book on my summer stack is Now: The Physics of Time by Richard A. Muller (W.W. Norton). Two books on language also have caught my eye and are on my pile, The Kingdom of Speech by Tom Wolfe (Little, Brown & Co., 2016), and Words on the Move by John McWhorter (Henry Holt, 2016).
Lastly, I look forward to savoring the recently published collections from two of my favorite poets, Mata Hari’s Lost Words by John Oughton (Neopoiesis, 2017), and Ego to Earthschool by Stephen Roxborough (Neopoiesis, 2017).
Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago (Haper Perennial, 2007), a thoroughly depressing and vitally important work of non-fiction (first published in 1973), will probably ruin your summer, but, in the long run, it will give you a profound understanding of what life was like under communism. Suffice it to say, George Orwell’s dystopian—and somewhat prophetic—depiction of a totalitarian Soviet-like state in his 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (Secker & Warburg) was no exaggeration. Solzhenitsyn points out the crucial role of ideology—in this case, Marxism/Leninism/Stalinism—in the formation of totalitarian societies.
Douglas Murray’s new book, entitled The Strange Death of Europe (Bloomsbury Continuum, 2017), gives an unsettling account of the recent refugee crisis and why it really is a crisis. In his rather pessimistic view, Europe is on the rocks because it has failed to assert a meaningful first-person plural that autochthonous Europeans can identify with and immigrants can integrate into. The British journalist (The Spectator) and political commentator argues—compellingly—that Europe’s current discourse around identity, immigration, and Islam is dominated by a sense of surrender and cultural masochism, which has played into the hands of far-right groups and parties.
One of the most eye-opening books I’ve ever read is The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Viking, 2011) by the American cognitive scientist, psychologist, and linguist Steven Pinker. Pinker’s optimistic book traces, in compelling prose, the decline of violence in human societies from the Stone Age to the present, explaining the social, cultural, political, and psychological factors behind this surprising phenomenon.
If non-fiction isn’t your thing, you might want to pick up Alex CF’s 2016 fantasy novel Seek the Throat from which We Sing (self-released), “a visceral tale of animal mythology, of dark and foreboding rite and ritual and the desperate rasp of life.” Seek the Throat… is the prolific British artist’s stunning debut as a novelist.
The summer between my second and third year of what I once heard Matt Morris call “Doctor School” is dedicated to the delightful if not academically required preparation for my hotly anticipated comprehensive exams. Because the History of Art and Architecture department at the University of Pittsburgh has a flexible exams program, I am putting my 70-book-and-article reading list to use toward three projects, one being an online publication entitled Sedimenta. Sedimenta, to be a semi-annual collection of critical engagements with contemporaneity, is accreting intellectual efforts toward tracing, for example, shifting subjectivities in the Anthropocene and the deracination of modernist philosophies of nature and landscape toward contemporary philosophies of ecology and deep time. Philosophically Pessimistic attitudes toward artistic practice in the final decades of a green planet are always an alluring line of inquiry as well. After the first edition, Roy Christopher will team up with me as print editor. Most of the books I’m reading this summer are to this end.
A few I’d like to highlight are: Anthropocene Feminism, edited by Richard Grusin (University of Minnesota Press, 2017), which caught my attention with its unsaturated hot-pink cover; Former West: Arts and the Contemporary After 1989, edited by Maria Hlavajova and Simon Sheikh (MIT Press, 2017), which I have already lit up with tabbed passages. The intellectual enterprise of “formering the west” and its Modernity, so far, is a challenging and important one; Reverse Hallucinations in the Archipelago, edited by Anna-Sophie Springer and Etienne Turpin (K. Verlag, 2017), confronts nineteenth-century will-to-knowledge and challenges colonial science and its reverberations in the Anthropocene. In the last year, I have become very excited about K. Verlag’s series Intercalations. In fact, it was in Land and Animal and Nonanimal (2015) I saw the word “sedimenta/tion” broken over two lines, which unearthed Sedimenta in name; Arts of Living on A Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene, edited by Anna Tsing, Heather Anne Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt (University of Minnesota Press, 2017), is likely to be my most anticipated this summer after seeing Douglas Armato flipping it backward and forward in a tweet. I anticipate that this book will enlighten-up my Pessimistic attitude toward artistic practice on a dead and dying planet. I would also like to note that whether by dexterous memory or by Freudian slip, I keep spelling it “damnaged” planet.
As above, Lucy Lippard‘s works are always so gently quaking below.
Those are for my eyes. For my ears, I have Brian Eno’s Small Craft on a Milk Sea (Warp) from 2010 on eternal repeat while writing for said comprehensive exams. More on personal brand, I’m playing Sharon Van Etten’s Are We There (Jagjaguwar) from 2014. Special thanks to David Lynch (and earlier, Brit Marling), for bringing her again to my attention from the Bang Bang Bar.
Brian Allen Carr Sip (Soho Press, 2017): After reading Brian Allen Carr’s The Last Horror Novel in the History of the World (Lazy Fascist, 2014), which reminded me of the masterful compression achieved by Kenneth Gangemi in his ’69 “miniature novel” Olt, I numbered myself among his fans. I haven’t read any of Carr’s other books. Sip will change that. Take a minute and six seconds to watch the trailer for his “lyrical, apocalyptic debut novel about addiction, friendship, and the struggle for survival.” I guess TLHNitHotW was considered a novella…
Knut Hamsun Growth of the Soil (Vintage Books, 1921): “The typical quirks of Hamsun are still present, and avid readers will find his unmistakable voice booming from the pages.”– s.penkevich on Goodreads (5-star review).
James Joyce Ulysses (1922; Random House US edition, 1934): Time feels right to read Ulysses, I thought as I perused a used hardcover with dust jacket copy from a bookseller’s shelves inside an Ashland antiques emporium. It’s the complete and unabridged text, corrected and reset, containing the original foreword by the author (who “punningly referred to himself as ‘Shame’s Voice,'” wrote Paul Strathern in James Joyce in 90 Minutes), the historic decision by Judge John M. Woolsey whereby the Federal ban on Ulysses was removed in ’33, and a foreword by Morris Ernst.
My 2017 summer reading list was probably the least consequential thing to change on November 9th, 2016, but change it did. As the U.S. has careened towards authoritarianism, I’ve been trying to learn more about 20th century experiences with totalitarian governments — and especially the early stages, as that seems most relevant to the U.S. context at the moment. I visited Auschwitz last summer during the annual digital humanities conference in Poland and wanted to learn more about how norms eroded in the run-up to WWII; so, I’ve begun by reading Volker Ullrich’s new biography Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 (Knopf, 2016). Ullrich’s careful account of Hitler’s rise to power is engrossing, readable, and distressing. What’s clear is that Hitler’s agenda was right out in the open from the beginning; as Ullrich notes, “even in the early 1920s, no resident of Munich who had attended a Hitler speech or read about one in the newspapers could have been in any doubt about what Hitler intended to do with the Jews” (104). Replace “Jews” with “immigrants” and we have reason to fear Trump’s next moves. I’ll likely take up books by Hannah Arendt (The Origins of Totalitarianism) and Czeslaw Milosz (The Captive Mind) this summer if I can get through the Ullrich biography quickly enough.
As I continue making my way through these academic texts, I’m looking forward to catching up on some pleasure reading; on the top of my list right now are Zachary Mason’s Void Star (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017), Elif Batuman’s The Idiot (Penguin, 2017), and Philip K. Dick‘s The Man in the High Castle (Putnam, 1962). It’s looking like a dystopian summer all the way around, unfortunately.
Mike McCormack Solar Bones (Tramp Press, 2016): This novel came recommended to me as a book about memory, family, and small town life in Ireland. If anyone has a unique perspective on those, it’s the Irish. I’m greatly looking forward to reading this one.
Larry Loftis Into the Lion’s Mouth (Caliber, 2016): This is an account of the life and exploits of Dusko Popov, a fascinating figure in Allied covert operations during World War II. Largely unheralded (at least in the U.S.), it is claimed he served as the template for Ian Fleming’s James Bond character.
Nicholas Stargardt The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939–1945 (Basic Books, 2015): Two books in one summer related to World War II is twice as many as I’ve read in the past ten years. There’s no accounting for it. What caught my eye about The German War is its focus on the breadth and depth of German attitudes and behaviors before, during and after the war, that is, it explores the varieties of Germans’ experiences from within, on Germans’ everyday experiences and struggles with the moral and practical dimensions of the war.
Olja Savicevic Adios, Cowboy (McSweeney’s, 2016): This one caught my eye at first due to its title, which evoked the song “Cowboys Lost At Sea,” by For Stars, causing me to take it down from the shelf at the bookstore and rifle through its pages. Then the prose caught my eye, parsimonious and evocative.
Rick Shefchik Everybody’s Heard about the Bird: The True Story of 1960s Rock ‘n’ Roll in Minnesota (University of Minnesota Press, 2015): It wouldn’t be summer if I wasn’t reading at least one book about music, and this probably won’t be the only one (George Harrison’s expanded I, Me, Mine is a contender, but when it comes to the Beatles I’m mainly waiting for the second installment in Mark Lewisohn’s masterful biography of the Beatles, which I predict will be titled Turn On — you heard it here first!). I’m keenly interested in the local nature of music, its formation, its sound, and one of the most interesting and intriguing — and brief — early 60s rock scenes formed, in of all places, Minnesota. From what I can tell, Shefchik has done a yeoman’s job of unearthing details, including first-person accounts.
Meryl Alper Giving Voice: Mobile Communication, Disability, and Inequality (MIT Press, 2017): As computers have been increasingly employing speech synthesis and voice recognition I’ve become more interested in how humans and machines communicate, and Alper’s book seems like an excellent critical look at mobile media, voice (both literally and figuratively), disability, and equality. I began reading this mid-May and am actually re-reading it over the summer with the thought of incorporating it into a seminar in the fall.
Joachim Kalka Gaslight (New York Review Books, 2017): As a lover of the ideas and literary mode of the German critic/philosopher Walter Benjamin, I could not resist this little book. It’s about the cradle of many of our troubles and so much of our optimism, the 19th century. Detectives, railways, gothic architecture, exoticism, new and strange technologies, the rise of mass consumption–these are few of my favorite themes.
August Wilson Joe Turner’s Come and Gone(Theatre Communications Group, 2008): I’m actually reading all of Wilson’s plays this summer. I have a good reason for this reading project. Black English, like Irish English, is very musical. The same is not true, for say, Shonanized English, which is more philosophical than musical. Anyway, Wilson writes like he is playing the blues on the piano. With his work, the connection between Black English and the blues is made clear. I usually read the books of Zora Neale Hurston for this kind pleasure–the music of words and sentences. But this time I’m reading Wilson.
One other thing. The great novelist Richard Wright once bemoaned that Black American literature did not have a Remembrance of Things Past. In a way, Wilson’s plays, which are set in Pittsburgh, are a working-class Remembrance of 20th century Black America.
Peter Wohlleben The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World (Greystone Books, 2016): Though this book is written by a German forester, Peter Wohllenben, it’s inspired, indeed has an afterword, by Suzanne Simard, a professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia. She is just wonderful. I’ve had the pleasure drinking with her. Her aura is not totally human. Much of it has fused with the forest: the canopy, the understory, the roots, that hum of wood. Simard discovered the mother tree. It’s not only huge but shares nutrients with other, weaker trees around it by a fungal network in the ground.
Imagine the fate of a hypothetical forest–let’s call it the Forest of Friendship–in which, by some mysterious concordat, all the trees have somehow managed to achieve the desirable aim of lowering the entire canopy to 10 feet. The canopy looks just like any other forest canopy except that it is only 10 feet high instead of 100 feet. From the point of view of a planned economy, the Forest of Friendship is more efficient as a forest than the tall forests with which we are familiar, because resources are not put into producing massive trunks that have no purpose apart from competing with other trees.
But now, suppose one mutant tree were to spring up in the middle of the Forest of Friendship. This rogue tree grows marginally taller than the ‘agreed’ norm of 10 feet. Immediately, this mutant secures a competitive advantage. Admittedly, it has to pay the cost of the extra length of trunk. But it is more than compensated, as long as all other trees obey the self-denying ordinance, because the extra photons gathered more than pay the extra cost of lengthening the trunk. Natural selection therefore favours the genetic tendency to break out of the self-denying ordinance and grow a bit taller, say to 11 feet. As the generations go by, more and more trees break the embargo on height. When, finally, all the trees in the forest are 11 feet tall, they are all worse off than they were before: all are paying the cost of growing the extra foot. But they are not getting any extra photons for their trouble. And now natural selection favours any mutant tendency to grow to, say 12 feet.
This way of thinking turns out to be a lot of nonsense. There is actually a Forest of Friendship. It is connected by “wood-wide web” that links roots to roots like soul to soul. And, as Wohllenben points out in his book, which I’m reading for the third time and is written with almost no poetry, trees do stifle competition. For some trees, growing too fast and with no checks is dangerous. The slower you grow, the longer you live. Of course, Dawkins, the neoliberal of the biological sciences, doesn’t have the capacity or ideology to see this socialism. He can only see competition where ever he looks.
Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming (Verso, 2016) is a remarkable, detailed and acute revisionist history that overturns our understanding of the transition from water-power to coal-burning energy systems which were more costly and far less efficient (but – spoiler alert – made it easier to control workers, suppress wages and offset costs onto the public purse). It is the best book I have read so far this year – though I am looking forward to the stiff competition China Miéville’s October: The Story of the Russian Revolution (Verso, 2017) will put up. Dipping into it has persuaded me to clear a day so I can read it in a single sitting.
One of my regular train journeys is the ideal length for Tor’s fantastic (in both senses) novellas – unless, of course, there are cattle on the line between Bath and Chippenham. Which happened a couple of weeks ago when I was reading Gwyneth Jones’s hard-sf-thriller-cum-ultimate-locked-room-mystery Proof of Concept (Tor, 2017), leaving me bookless between Reading and London. Every bit as good is Everything Belongs to the Future (St. Martin’s Press, 2016), Laurie Penny’s dystopian vision of endless Tory austerity, and I am looking forward to the otherwise dully familiar trips that will get me to the Lovecraft revisionism of Kij Johnson’s The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe (Tor, 2016) and Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom (Tor, 2016), as well as Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti: Home (Tor, 2017) and Stephen Graham Jones’s Mapping the Interior (Tor, 2017).
My summer will be devoted to getting through the William T. Vollmann backlog. He only writes big, fat far-from-portable hardbacks, so they’ve been stacking up for a while. But I hope to spend at least some of this summer sat on my fat lazy arse -– also catching up on recent novels by Andrea Hairston, Cixin Liu, Mohammad Rabie, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Sofia Samatar.
Summer mostly means novels to me; an all-too brief respite from academic writing.
Having said that, I’m very much looking forward to an advance copy of Margret Grebowicz’s contribution to the excellent Object Lessons series, on Whale Song (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017).
I’m also looking forward to re-reading Gerald Murnane’s The Plains (New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2003), which has just been re-released. It’s a unique instance of “incoherent geography,” and arguably the best novella to come out of Australia. Fans of Calvino, Borges, Casares, etc. should take a look.
John Cowper Powy’s ever-unfashionable Wolf Solent (Simon & Schuster, 1929) is a book I’ve been circling for decades, so will likely finally take the plunge soon.
Otherwise, I just finished Paul Beatty’s brilliant, exhausting, hilarious, and provocative novel, The Sellout (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), and can’t recommend it highly enough.
Book that came out before summer: Mariana Enriquez Things We Lost in the Fire: Stories (Hogarth, 2017): It’s one of the best short story collections of the last decade. I couldn’t have loved it more. A heady mix of Gothic, weird, realism, and politics. Now I anxiously await for more of her books to be translated.
Summer books out now: Stephen Graham Jones Mapping the Interior (Tor, 2017): A ghost story, a story about fathers, and history… The amount of creepiness, ambition, and emotion Stephen packs into this novella is unfair.
Victor LaValle The Changeling (Spiegel & Grau, 2017): I’m reading it as I type, but already this dark, melancholy meditation on parenting is messing me up.
Summer book out later: Nadia Bulkin She Said Destroy (Word Horde, 2017): I had the honor of writing an introduction to this short story collection. This astonishingly fierce, intelligent, disturbing collection of sociopolitical shockers will be the perfect way to end your summer and dread the fall.
Keith Morris My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor (Da Capo, 2016): From 2011 through 2015, I ended up living in this forgotten about tract of Los Angeles called The South Bay. Not that it is actually forgotten about in the present tense—people still there—but the area was once home to a thriving BMX and punk rock scene, and those aspects of the land are largely forgotten about in the present tense, replaced by sprawling bars, expensive parking, and overpriced surf shops.
I picked Redondo Beach to live in, mainly because I grew up reading the town name in BMX magazines and in the liner notes of records released by SST Records. I had visited once in the late ‘90s/early ‘00s, but aside from that, I felt I had a brand of adopted familiarity with the place. That led me to renting a house on Mathews Avenue in North Redondo, not far from a 7-11 on Artesia Blvd.
Something about the heightened curb outside of this particular 7-11 struck me as so familiar, but for the life of me, I couldn’t place it at first. Then it dawned on me. It was the site of a photo of Henry Rollins, while he sang for Black Flag, from 1985. And it looked almost exactly the same in 2011 as it did in 1985. I never knew an address, but from that day forward, I acknowledged that I was living in the same neighborhood that Black Flag used to practice in many years before me.
I was light years away in suburban New Jersey, listening to those Black Flag songs in early skate videos, and here I was an adult living blocks away from one of the creative homes of Black Flag. It then became a past time for me to zero in on locations formerly known for their influence on SST Records releases or in past BMX magazines.
So it came as no surprise that I read My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor by Keith Morris, in little more than a day when I bought it. Morris was the original singer for Black Flag, an original Hermosa Beach local, and one of the squares that didn’t fit into the round hole of the South Bay in the late 1970s and 1980s.
Morris and his family lived in Hermosa Beach. His dad owned a bait shop, and Morris borrowed generously from his dad’s cash register to get into all sorts of mayhem as a teen. Through the early parts of the book, Morris also animates a version of Hermosa and Redondo Beach that I never got to know — seaside working class communities unaware of their future sitting on million dollar properties, or past as a vibrant punk rock community. Morris sings for Black Flag down the street from my second house on PCH, walks the streets of Pier Ave., and parties a mile north in Manhattan Beach.
He eventually escapes his hometown, touring with The Circle Jerks, living in Silver Lake and never really returning home to The South Bay in his later years, because, in his words, he doesn’t recognize the place he came from.
Last summer, I visited Hermosa and Redondo again after being away for little over a year, and it was a strange visit. The place that had formerly forgotten or never acknowledged its punk rock roots, now had murals of bands birthed in The South Bay painted on electrical boxes. It was still expensive as shit to even be there, and a little lonely just like I had remembered it, but at least someone in Hermosa Beach had remembered the influence of Black Flag and Descendents.
I wasn’t crazy — all of the mentions of Hermosa and Redondo that I read as a teenager in New Jersey had happened. And Keith Morris’ book is a definitive place to start to learn about the history of punk rock in the South Bay.
It’s also a lesson in understanding one’s place as a legendary influence, but never attempting to capitalize on that legacy. It’s about always moving forward, wherever that road may lead.
The 33 1/3 entry on The Pharcyde’s Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde by Andrew Barker (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017) is excellent. The album is one of my favorites and the book covers a lot of the details you want to know as a fan. It goes into the recording of most of the songs and in the order they happened, so you get a nice feel of how the album was constructed. Definitely in a similar style to Dan LeRoy’s exemplary 33 1/3 of The Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique(Bloomsbury Academic, 2006).
I also recently read J-Zone’s Root for the Villain: Rap, Bull$hit, and a Celebration of Failure (Old Maid Entertainment, 2011) which was as hilarious and insightful as I had hoped it would be. This is a must-read if you’re a hip-hop fan, even if you’re not too familiar with J-Zone’s music. It combines a behind-the-scenes underground rap expose together with some in-depth opinions and observations from a true hip-hop head and music lover.
This one isn’t actually out yet, but it should be on people’s radars: Martin Connor’s The Musical Artistry of Rap (McFarland & Co., 2017). Martin is a musicologist who breaks down rapping with tools from traditional music analysis and this is his first book, hopefully the first of many. I’m not sure if you can get it in time for summer… If not then maybe spend the summer preparing for this book by brushing up on your music theory, etc.!
When Roy Christopher’s Summer Reading List email lands in my inbox I become paralyzed. I tend to shy away from even attempting to get my head around which books or authors I should be sharing. Roy never nudges me with follow up emails, I just get one. The guilt is unbearable. That’s surely his plan, because at the last minute I get it done. So, another year, another list. Here goes:
In the latter half of 2016 I began collecting many of Jim Harrison’s books. It became a minor obsession. Perhaps his death spurred me to backtrack through his work. I have collected a dozen of his past works of fiction, finding them in online used bookstores, recovered from libraries. Of all of these books, none have struck me as deeply as Sundog (E. P. Dutton/Seymour Lawrence), first released in 1984. I know I added Harrison to Roy’s 2016 list, but I felt it only right to go with this first.
Changing gears, or rather countries, H is for Hawk (Jonathan Cape, Ltd, 2014) by the English author Helen Macdonald had been sitting in the unread pile for two years. After reading the rave reviews the book had received, I was concerned that it would be a mawkish read and that wasn’t a frame of mind that I felt was desirable to me at the time. I was mistaken. Having read her articles on nature and natural history in the New York Times Magazine, I felt that I should put my feelings aside and give the book a chance. It is far from mawkish. Ironically, I should have noted that Jim Harrison gave it a great review, which makes perfect sense. Here’s a snippet of what he had to say: “A lovely touching book about a young woman grieving over the death of her father and becoming rejuvenated by training one of the roughest, most difficult creatures in the heavens, the goshawk.” Macdonald’s book is a wonderful meditation on life; part memoir, part grief, and lots of soul-searching.
Mary Gaitskill’s latest book of essays, Somebody With a Little Hammer (Pantheon, 2017) had my head spinning. I became fascinated as she moved through the world of music, literature, politics and society, covering date rape, Charles Dickens, John Updike, Bob Dylan, Bjork, Talking Heads, Norman Mailer, Dubravka Ugresic, Hanan al-Shaykh, and more. She muses on Nabakov’s Lolita. Of Linda Lovelace she writes, “Icon of freedom and innocent carnality; icon of brokenness and confusion; icon of sexual victimization, sexual power, irreconcilable oppositions.” The book contains 31 riveting and concise essays. I suspect it is one I will go back to often.
Joan Didion South and West: From a Notebook (Knopf, 2017): Didion shares with us but two excerpts from her notebooks that up until now she has never revealed before. “Notes From The South” covers the road trip with her husband, John Gregory Dunne, in June of 1970, traveling through Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Her eyes and ears capture everything around her as she describes a South that is largely unchanged today.
“California Notes” came about when she was assigned by Rolling Stone to cover the Patty Hearst trial in 1976. She never wrote the piece. Instead, being in San Francisco triggered thoughts about the West, the Hearsts, and her own upbringing in Sacramento. It is a short book, I read it in a single day; a day well spent.
Thinking how to respond to this call, my first instinct was turn my head towards the left, and look at my office bookshelf to see all the volumes that I have had not time to look into over the past months. There’s lots. So some of the books mentioned below are texts that I will read, some are what I want to read and some are what I would anyway suggest to read. I will start with the latter and cheekily, suggest two recent books in our Recursions Series: Ute Holl’s fabulous study (translation) Cinema, Trance and Cybernetics (Amsterdam University Press, 2017) and Liam Young’s just published List Cultures (Amsterdam University Press, 2017)– a book on cultural techniques of listing.
Otherwise, I will be reading a lot of things that relate to my current research projects more directly. This will mean reading about labs, art and technology, making, and such things, but a lot of that material won’t be in books but in various articles, shorter texts, interviews, and such. It also includes going back to reading or re-reading some material such as Johanna Drucker’s Speclab: Digital Aesthetics and Projects in Speculative Computing (University of Chicago Press, 2009). My other writing addresses imaginary media and imaginary futures, so I am reading also some fiction for that one, for example the collection Iraq +100. Stories from a Century After the Invasion (Tor, 2017) that Hassan Blasim edited.
I’m currently reading two books, each a tour-de-force in its own right/write, and I’ll definitely be continuing in their pages this summer.
The Perversity of Things: Hugo Gernsback on Media, Tinkering, and Scientifiction by Hugo Gernsback and Grant Wythoff (University of Minnesota Press, 2016) shows how Gernsback, generally regarded as the grandfather, father, or some kind of primary progenitor of science fiction, did the same for media theory, presaging Marshall McLuhan’s way of thinking about technology and communication by decades. Wythoff’s 59-page Introduction is itself more than worth the price of admission.
I’ve never not been an ardent Beatles’ fan, so I can’t quite say that Rob Sheffield’s Dreaming the Beatles (Dey Street, 2017) rekindled my love of this group’s music, but it certainly placed it first and foremost in my brain this summer, and Sheffield’s masterful, delightful prose makes great accompaniment to the Beatles on the new Beatles Channel on Sirius/XM Radio.
And while I’m here, a few recommendation for books I’ve already read, but which would make wonderful summer reading for anyone who hasn’t: Bonnie Rozanski’s The Mindtraveler (Bitingduck Press, 2015) is one of the best time-travel novels I’ve ever read. David S. Michaels and Daniel Brenton’s Red Moon (Breakneck Books, 2007) is a novel you can’t put down, with a science fictional but who knows explanation of why the Soviets lost the space race in the 1950s.
Most of my year was taken up with prep for my new book (The Playstation Dreamworld; Polity, 2017), but for the summer ahead I’d rather recommend the two better forthcoming books in the series, Xenofeminism (Polity, 2017) by the brilliant Helen Hester and Narcocapitalism (Polity, 2017), the English translation of Laurent de Sutter’s L’âge de l’anesthésie, which I read earlier in the year. Hester, a member of Laboria Cuboniks and the Xenofeminism movement, is among the most exciting writers of recent years and work on feminism and technology seems as important as anything else I can think of. Complementing this intervention, De Sutter’s book shows how living in modern society means living in a world in which our very emotions have been outsourced to chemical stimulation.
In my Hong Kong Review of Books duties, the most exciting book I encountered was Yuk Hui’s The Question Concerning Technology in China (Urbanomic Media, 2016), which he answered our questions about last month. Another book for the serious philosopher to look out for is Gregor Moder’s Hegel and Spinoza (Northwestern University Press, 2017), the latest in the Slovene-Lacanian revolution and coming soon from Northwestern. Last year’sAbolishing Freedom by Frank Ruda (University of Nebraska Press, 2016) is equally exciting, arguing for a renovation of attitudes towards the complicated signifier “freedom” that could get us out of the political crises we face today. In a world in which the corporate establishment and the far-Right make use of the term to assert their agendas, Ruda asks us to think again about the functions and effects of the word “freedom.” Experimental poets–of which I’m really not one–might like Robert Kiely’s How to Read (Lulu, 2017).
After all that hard work, I’ll settle down to the long-awaited new novel from the king of Scandinavian crime noir, Arnaldur Indridason. If enjoyment is everything, The Shadow District(Minotaur Books, 2017) is the only book you need.
Maile Meloy Do Not Become Alarmed (Riverhead, 2017): I finally got a copy of Maile Meloy’s new novel, Do Not Become Alarmed, and somehow I am managing to save it for next week’s Solstice campout. Meanwhile, I’m taking the opportunity to re-read Meloy’s story collection Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It (Riverhead, 2010). It’s gratifying to warm up to a new book from a favorite author by revisiting her older books. I should do this more often…
Meloy has an amazing touch with characters, particularly in the form of a short story. Her writing is crystal clear, seemingly without affect. The stories manage to be both hard and tender. There is a lot of loneliness, and few happy endings, yet the stories don’t seem dark or brooding or pessimistic. She lights up the way people make their way through their lives; their thoughts, their self-reflections, their awareness of and fealty to their own weaknesses.
Like so many in the summer of ’17, I’m still trying to figure out what happened in the fall of ’16. I’ve avoided Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? by Thomas Frank (Metropolitan Books, 2016) which came out before the election. I suppose that’s because it’s a direct attack on the Democratic Party I’d supported and which had shaped so many of its policies around the concerns of people like me. With the GOP holding the presidency, both houses of Congress, the last and probably next Supreme Court appointments, and too many state legislatures and governorships to recount without weeping liberal tears, maybe a rethink is needed.
Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies: Online culture wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right (Zer0 Books, 2017) is another, more techno-cultural tool for me to use on the political and social practices we inherited from the 20th century that just seem broken at the moment. Nagle is merciless in her analysis of the techno-utopian hopes of early Internet cheerleaders, and sets up a cage match between identitarian Tumblr and the lol fascism-light of the mouth breathers on 4chan. Its like cross-breeding Greshem’s Law and Godwin’s Law, wherein shit-posting drives out coherence.
I refuse to consecrate the whole summer to hair-shirting myself for my own liberal normie tendencies, so I’ll read lots of fiction, almost all revolving around Los Angeles. Top of the pile is Dodgers by Bill Beverly (Crown, 2016) about a low level drug kid from the South LA projects who gets sent deep into the Midwest to commit a murder.
Should be good, but the kid could probably cause more disruption by staying in the Midwest, registering, and voting Democratic.
I’m finishing up the research on my book Dead Precedents (Repeater Books, 2018), which tellingly is what I was researching during the list last year. There’s plenty of great, new work to read though.
Paul Youngquist A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afrofuturism (University of Texas Press, 2017): Not since John F. Szwed’s Space is the Place (Pantheon, 1997) and the first two chapters of Graham Lock’s Blutopia (Duke University Press, 1999) has there been an in-depth study of Sun Ra that connects as many dots as Younquist’s. Most studies of Afrofuturism trace its roots at least back to Sun Ra, but none have done a study so specific, and studies of Sun Ra don’t necessarily make such an explicit connection to his Afrofuturist legacy (Szwed mentions the word once; Lock doesn’t use the term at all). For a broader picture, read along with Reynaldo Anderson and Charles E. Jones’ recent edited collection, Afrofuturism 2.0: The Rise of Astro-Blackness (Lexington Books, 2016).
Greg Tate Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader (Duke University Press, 2016): If you study Black Atlantic art or music, you will contend with Greg Tate. Always a worthy opponent or worth a thorough read, Tate’s work is shiny and sharp and reflects the culture that it cuts. Flyboy 2 is the second such collection of his writings for the Village Voice, Spin, the Wire, Ebony, Paper, and many other publications, as well as some previously unpublished joints.
I know you have your giftcards handy, and you’re looking for something new to read. In these times, I often think about books everyone’s supposed to read. I’ve read some of them. Many are damn good and on the list for a reason, but some need to be avoided like carbs or fat or sugar. So, in the tradition of Eat This, Not That!, here are a few of my recommendations:
Andy Merriman explores his humanity through the calm eyes of the donkey. A former academic, Merriman escaped that bookish bedlam to the south of France to roam the hills with a donkey named Gribouille. He visits the outdoor clinic of the Society for the Protection and Welfare of Donkeys and Mules in Egypt and finds it more inspiring than the Pyramids. The economy there is driven by donkeys, not camels as is widely assumed. Donkeys plow the fields, carry the equipment and supplies, and since they are being bred less and less, the few extant donkeys are more precious to the economy and subsequently evermore overworked… The workers there don’t seem to think that donkeys feel pain. They treat them as machines.
Though it contains some similar lessons, the book is just so much better in every way. Instead of a longwinded, pretentious narrator, a whiney kid, and a fixer-upper motorcycle, you get a thoughtful storyteller, no children, and a donkey!
Both of these books are about the narrator’s mom dying, but one of them is as real as it is funny. The other one is depressing and not even a true story. One of them has a foreword by Johnny Depp. The other does not.
If depraved comedy is not your thing, do not retreat to Eggersland. Go get Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby (Viking, 2013). As I wrote previously, there are several intertwining allegories threading through The Faraway Nearby. One is about a windfall of apricots rotting slowly on the floor of Solnit’s bedroom, and that story is connected to the very dire story of the diminishing mind of her mom. Overall though, the book is about moving, about going, coming, and becoming, the crisis of living where cartographers have yet to tread, losing your way and finding it again.
Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band (Dey St., 2015) is another solid option. She has helped define the art of her time, but she hasn’t been limited by it. Her art, performance, and writing all feel completely fearless.
Instead of the fumbling, faux intelligence of A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (Grove Weidenfeld, 1987), read The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner (Scribner, 2013), or grab this year’s best book, The Girls by Emma Cline (Random House). Both are better in every way. Instead of suffocating under the overbearing sloth of Dunces, you can grow with the lovely language of either of the others. Also, there are motorcycles and art in one (The Flamethrowers) and hippy communes, rockstars, and murders in the other (The Girls). You can thank me later.
Instead of the woefully contrived Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (Crown, 2011), read any one of the following:
We’re all going to die. There is only a certain amount of time to read, which means only a certain number of books are going to get read. Your brain is not a computer, but the old phrase “garbage in, garbage out” still applies. There are no deadlines, but there’s no time to waste. Choose well, choose wisely, and don’t read or finish crap writing of any kind.
Even with a space seemingly cut out for them by a family of description-defying groups, ready-made genres, and audiences lying in wait, some sounds still just seem to don’t fit anywhere. As I wrote previously about another post-something band, when genre-specific adjectives fail, we grasp at significant exemplars from the past to describe new sounds. Following Straw (1991), Josh Gunn (1999) calls this “canonization” (p. 42): The synecdochical use of a band’s name for a genre is analogous to our using metaphors, similes, and other figurative language when literal terms fall short. Where bands sometimes emerge that do not immediately fit into a genre (e.g., Godflesh, Radiohead, dälek, et al.) or adhere too specifically to the sound of one band (e.g., the early 21st-century spate of bands that sound like Joy Division), we run into this brand of genre trouble.
Post-Rock would seem to be just such a genre. Ever since Simon Reynolds etched the term into the annals of music journalism, there has been a post-everything-else. Sometimes it’s just lazy writing, sometimes it’s for marketing purposes, and sometimes a genre has truly emerged alongside its parent designation. Regardless, in Storm Static Sleep: A Pathway Through Post-Rock (Function Books, 2015), Jack Chuter tries to get to the bottom of all things post-rock, even devoting an entire chapter to Reynolds himself. There seems to be very little consensus on exactly where Rock crossed the line and became something else. The roots of the genre run deep and in many directions (e.g., Prog, Brian Eno, Jazz, CAN, PiL, Industrial, Jim O’Rourke, et al.), and Chuter goes as far back as the New Romanticism of Talk Talk and its separate ways before moving on to Slint and Slint-inspired rock.
If any band is worthy of its own genre, it is Slint: a band certainly more talked-about than listened-to. About such talking-about and genres as they emerge in writing, Lisa Gitelman (2014) writes,
As I understand it, genre is a mode of recognition instantiated in discourse. Written genres, for instance, depend on a possibly infinite number of things that large groups of people recognize, will recognize, or have recognized that writings can be for (p. 2).
As Star (1991) and Gunn (1999) describe canonization above, Gitelman contends that genres emerge from discourse. Subsequently, we internalize them. They are inside us. She continues,
Likewise genres—such as the joke, the novel, the document, and the sitcom—get picked out contrastively amid a jumble of discourse and often across multiple media because of the ways they have been internalized by constituents of a shared culture. Individual genres aren’t artifacts, then; they are ongoing and changeable practices of expression and reception that are recognizable in myriad and variable constituent instances at once and also across time. They are specific and dynamic, socially realized sites and segments of coherence within the discursive field (p. 2).
Chuter’s pathway through Post-Rock also goes as far out as the Post-Metal of Neurosis and Isis, and as current as 65daysofstatic, God is an Astronaut, and This Will Destroy You. Just when you think Post-Rock is too narrow a designation for a book-length exploration, with a quick list one sees how wide its waves crash.
Further mapping the fringes, Sounds of the Underground (University of Michigan Press, 2016) by Stephen Graham covers everything from extreme noise to black metal, and from hardcore improvisation to the festivals and venues that host them. Graham distills a massive amount of cultural, political, and aesthetic history into his investigation, and his attention to the means of production, the shifting control thereof, changes in consumption, and the lack of change in content are all paramount to the story.
Graham concludes by writing, “whatever boundaries I’ve laid down should be understood as liquid and tentative” (p. 243). Noting the gauziness of genre doesn’t necessarily negate the pursuit of classification. As radically subjective as music fandom can be, it’s nice to have some signposts. These two books are maps made of many.
Chuter, Jack. (2015). Storm Static Sleep: A Pathway Through Post-Rock. London: Function Books.
Gitelman, Lisa. (2014). Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Graham, Stephen. (2016). Sounds of the Underground: A Cultural, Political, and Aesthetic Mapping of Underground and Fringe Music. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Gunn, Josh. (1999, Spring) Gothic Music and the Inevitability of Genre. Popular Music & Society, 23, 31-50.
Straw, Will. (1991). Systems of Articulation, Logics of Change: Communities and Scenes in Popular Music. Cultural Studies, 5(3), 361-75.
Apologies to Josh Gunn for the title of this post.
If you’re like me, you haven’t even read all of last year’s recommendations, but here’s another great pile of pages to read! This year’s list boasts contributions from newcomers Rita Raley, Gerfried Ambrosch, Pat Cadigan, Emily Empel, Alexander Weheliye, André Carrington, Douglas Lain, Christina Henry, Alfie Bown, Charles Mudede, and Joseph Nechvatal, as well as veteran listers Janet Murray, Lance Strate, Peter Lunenfeld, Ashley Crawford, Lily Brewer, Dave Allen, Rick Moody, Alex Burns, Patrick Barber, Michael Schandorf, and myself.
As always unless otherwise noted, titles and covers link to the book at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon: the best bookstore on the planet. Read on!
Roz Kaveney’s Rhapsody of Blood series hasn’t received half the attention it deserves. The first three books––Rituals (Plus One Press, 2012), Reflections (2013), and Resurrections (2014)––are available now and two more are coming. It’s the secret history of the world, told with so much wit and panache, that you’ll feel like your IQ went up a few points.
Tricia Sullivan’s Occupy Me (Gollancz, 2016) is also not to be missed. It’s not a gentle ride, but you can handle it. This is a book for your wild side.
Liz Williams is a writer who has been shamefully overlooked, even after she was nominated for an Arthur C. Clarke Award. There are plenty of great books to choose from but if you’re wondering where to start, go with Snake Agent (Open Road Media, 2013), the first book in her Detective Chen mysteries. After that, you won’t need any help from me.
Finally… I spent the first four months of last year having chemo for my incorrigible cancer. The shortlist for last year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award kept me entertained and thinking about things not related to carcinomas.
Conjunctions 66: Affinity: Which I have a piece in, but that’s not why I want to read it. It’s a great issue, of one of the greatest literary magazines in the country, which is also now one of the longest-lived literary magazines.
Dana Spiotta, Innocents and Others (Scribner, 2016): She’s one of my favorite stylists operating these days.
Brian Evenson, A Collapse of Horses (Coffee House Press, 2016): Brian’s technicolor stories of the West and violence and human psychology are always excellent, and always underrated, or not as well known as they should be. I’m excited to catch up on the recent stuff, which I know less well than the early stuff.
Dorthe Nors, So Much for That Winter (Graywolf Press, 2016): One of the truly great writers of Western Europe, and just now acquiring a bit of a following in the US. She’s Danish, but sort of half Woolf, half Welty.
Ben Ratliff, Every Song Ever (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016): I hate most music writing these days, except that I love Ben Ratliff. I am tempted to buy almost everything he recommends, even the extreme metal stuff…
Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (Harper Perennial, 2008): Well, you know, a lot of people already know about this book. I know about it chiefly from reading Derrida, and last year I decided I had put it off long enough. I dip in and read a few pages, and then go and read the commentators some more.
Ahmad Faris Al-Shidyaq, Leg Over Leg (New York University Press, 2015): The first great Arabic novel, or so they say. But most of them haven’t read it. A book I have long aspired to. Hoping to get to it this summer!
Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Book 3 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015): Because I have now finished 1 and 2.
I might be remiss if I began this list without mentioning the two new books in the Electronic Mediations series from the University of Minnesota Press, but I am genuinely excited about Yuk Hui’s On the Existence of Digital Objects (2016) and Jennifer Gabrys’ Program Earth: Environmental Sensing Technology and the Making of a Computational Planet (2016). In the wake of recent translations of Gilbert Simondon’s work into English, “technical objects” (emerging in part from the Industrial Revolution) are increasingly central to critical conversations in media and science and technology studies. Hui builds on Simondon and Heidegger in his philosophical account of the “digital objects” that constitute our contemporary socio-technical milieu, posing timely questions about the individuation of both objects and humans in relation to technical systems. Equally timely is Program Earth, Gabrys’s cultural and theoretical analysis of environmental sensing, which should I think be required reading for anyone interested in issues of media and environment. Ranging from spillcams to smart cities and participatory urbanism, Gabrys demonstrates with sharp critical acumen the extent to which “the earth” is programmed, monitored, experienced, and, one hopes, engaged.
I’m also looking forward to making my way through the formidable collection, Global Activism: Art and Conflict in the 21st Century (MIT Press, 2015), which follows from a ZKM exhibit a couple of years ago, and David Jhave Johnston’s Aesthetic Animism: Digital Poetry’s Ontological Implications (MIT Press, 2016). I have been teaching and studying Jhave’s work for some time, and I can’t wait to see the book-length treatment of what he calls TAVITS (text audio-visual interactivity). And the MIT book I want to insist everyone should read is Gary Hall’s Pirate Philosophy: For a Digital Posthumanities (2016). As Hall persuasively argues, it is not enough to develop post-theoretical paradigms when our various circuits of scholarly communication are still embedded in humanist practices. With a thorough account of the recent transformations in academic publishing, Hall challenges both individuals and institutions to develop models of knowledge dissemination better suited to our technological and socio-economic landscape.
Summer is for me the time for essay and short story collections. Like many I imagine, I’ve been tracking the development of some of the entries for the “Digital Keywords” project at Culture Digitally, and now I am eager to dip into the whole collection, out soon from Princeton University Press. Absent a new Alice Munro compilation (sigh), I’ve lined up Etgar Keret’s Suddenly, A Knock on the Door (FSG Originals, 2012), Aleksander Hemon’s The Question of Bruno (Vintage, 2000), and Colum McCann’s Thirteen Ways of Looking (Random House, 2015) for August. And Lauren Groff’s story in the New Yorker last summer (“Ghosts and Empties“) has led me to pick up her novel, The Monsters of Templeton (Hachette, 2008).
Here in New York, the Broadway musical Hamilton has been all the rage for the past year, so I have decided to start my summer reading off with The Federalist Papers, authored by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay (Signet Classics, 2003, originally published 1787-1788 under the pseudonym of Publius). While we’re on the subject of authors with the initials A.H., my list also includes Ends and Means: An Inquiry Into the Nature of Ideals by Aldous Huxley (Transaction, 2012, originally published 1937).
I recently received a copy of The Book of Radical General Semantics by Gad Horowitz with Colin Campbell (Pencraft International, 2016), and I would want to read it under any circumstance, but all the more so because I recently became president of the New York Society for General Semantics. I also plan on rereading Lewis Mumford’s The Condition of Man (Harcourt, Brace, 1944). And I have heard great things about the recent book by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence (Schocken Books, 2015), so that’s on my list as well.
For scholars in the field of communication and media studies, Arthur Asa Berger is a familiar name, having authored many books on media and popular culture, and I look forward to reading his newest, Writing Myself into Existence (NeoPoiesis Pres, 2016). Regarding communication, I also have on my list Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (Penguin, 2015) by Sherry Turkle, a scholar often included in media ecology circles. And on the related topic of the study of time, I am also including Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman (University of Minnesota Press, 2015).
Poetry books play a prominent and pleasant role regarding summertime reading (and the rest of the year as well), and this year my stack includes a collection by David Ossman of Firesign Theatre, Marshmallows and Despair (NeoPoiesis Pres, 2015), and Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey (Andrews McMeel, 2015).
My son has recommended the work of playwright Jenny Schwartz, so I’m also including two of her plays, God’s Ear (Samuel French, 2009), and Somewhere Fun (Oberon, 2013). Finally, there’s a mystery novel I just have to read, Death by Triangulation by John Oughton (NeoPoiesis Pres, 2015).
Being an information junkie, I mostly read non-fiction. The last two works of fiction I have read were Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins (Bantam, 1984), which I highly recommend (It’s a great summer read and a real page-turner), and, for research reasons, the Quran (not such a page-turner). The former tells the story of a chap called Alobar, an 8th-century Eurasian king, who, having escaped execution, is granted everlasting youth, finds a female companion with whom he shares this gift, and experiences many strange things over the course of several centuries. His extraordinary life story eventually intersects with that of a young waitress from Seattle and several other curious characters in this darkly humorous novel. (Come to think of it, the story told in the Quran is not dissimilar – minus the humor.)
Human morality, says Haidt, is highly intuitive. But we use reason to justify our moral intuitions, many of which are based on disgust and communal concerns about ‘sanctity’ and reputation. Thus, argues Haidt, our morality has its roots in our evolution as a tribal, cooperating species. A fascinating read!
I’m about halfway through Richard Carrier’s highly scholarly, yet captivating, book on the historicity of Jesus. The prolific historian presents a mountain of evidence suggesting that there never was a historical Jesus. One by one, he debunks every existing argument in support of the widespread belief that the cult of Jesus had to have originated from an actual historical figure, a hypothesis for which there seems to exist no evidence whatsoever.
The third item on my summer reading list – Why the West Is Best: A Muslim Apostate’s Defense of Liberal Democracy by Ibn Warraq (Encounter Books, 2011) – should make for a superb read. The title says it all. Warraq, who is described as an ‘Islamic scholar and a leading figure in Koranic criticism,’ criticizes the ‘erosion of our civilizational self-confidence’ under the influence of such intellectual heavy weights as Edward Said and Noam Chomsky. Controversial!
I’ll be talking about my own book on a few occasions this summer, so I’ll start there. My book is Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction (University of Minnesota Press, 2016). I think people might be interested if they’re into African American/Black Studies, science fiction & fantasy, comics, representations of Black women, fan culture, or the politics of cultural production. Speculative Blackness analyzes gendered, sexual, generational, and global constructions of Blackness in speculative fiction—including science fiction, fantasy, and utopian works, along with their fan cultures—to illustrate the relationship between genre conventions in media and the meanings ascribed to race in the popular imagination.
Currently, I’m reading the graphic memoir Marbles by Ellen Forney (Avery, 2012) in order to supervise a student’s senior project in which it’s a primary text. I’ve had it for over a year, but I’m ready to read it now that it’s turned into a professional responsibility, too.
Next up will be the remainder of Christopher Priest’s Black Panther series. I’m on #46 now… I got Marvel Unlimited specifically to read this, and it’s been useful to catch up with other comics I’ve missed in the recent past. I’ll have more to say about this soon because I’m writing about it.
A couple novels I’ll be reading this summer are Minion (St. Martin’s, 2004) and Bad Blood (St. Martin’s, 2008), by the late L.A. Banks. They’re the respective first volumes of her vampire huntress legend and werewolf series. I’ve never had the constitution for horror before but I want to be able to handle it—I just read Daniel Jose Older’s novel Shadowshaper (Arthur A. Levine, 2015) and it was thrilling, but scary.
There’s some other horror/supernatural fiction I’m reading for research this summer, by Mervyn Peake, and a few stories that I’m hoping to teach in a Science Fiction course that are in my colleague Heather Masri’s expansive anthology. I’ve never been the best reader of short fiction, for some reason. But students do well with shorter texts, for obvious reasons.
I’m also really, really going to read this comics biography of Rosa Luxemburg (by Paul Frölich; Haymarket Books, 2010), really soon.
As a professional futurist, I’m always astounded by the lack of female voices in future-orientated conversations, especially those highlighted in mainstream media. For the past few months, I’ve been obsessed with making a place for women to think and talk about the future. By some chance, I was asked to guest edit an upcoming summer issue of MISC (a journal of insight and foresight), focusing on women. I rallied a small group of women to join forces and we were able to explore what would happen if you sourced a future-view entirely from the perspectives of women. Our efforts resulted in the issue’s special feature, “The Future According to Women.”
This was all great, and for months, I enjoyed daily conversations with some pretty bad-ass women (over 40 of them). I didn’t realize how addicted I had become to these interactions until we finished compiling the piece—and I was left with the same feeling as after a breakup. Below are some books that I read immediately to mend my heart post-project. Naturally, they are all authored by women. Enjoy!
Alexandra Brodsky and Rachel Kauder Nalebuff, Editors, The Feminist Utopia Project (The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2015): With 57 views of a wildly different future, this book is a nightstand staple. You’ll not only want to read a chapter a night (each penned by a different author), but you’ll also want to send a copy to all your friends and suggest starting an impromptu bookclub to discuss every chapter in-depth. There’s some seriously groundbreaking futuring hidden in this book. If you read it, tweet me your favorite vision of utoptia (@localrat). I’m always so curious what other people choose.
Nancy Jo Sales, American Girls (Knopf, 2016): Lest we forget that the future currently belongs only to the few, Nancy Jo explores how a lack of consideration in creating technology and a predominantly bro culture in the Valley is driving a cultural shift that takes power away from girls and their futures. Fair warning: this book will make your stomach turn. We hear about how powerful social media has been for driving social change, while Nancy Jo covers the counterview—writing about the status quo with a vengeance.
Rebecca Traister, All the Single Ladies (Simon & Schuster, 2016): I had to pick this book up after hearing it touted countless times on my favorite podcast, Call Your Girlfriend. As more of my friends partner off and marry, it’s fascinating to learn about how the role of single women has evolved over time. I especially love the chapter that equates single-lady friendships to long-term partnerships.
Peggy Orenstein, Girls & Sex (Harper, 2016): A must-read for any parent, friend of a parent, or friend of a teacher. I heard Peggy’s interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air and was blown away. Peggy critiques sex-positive culture, arguing that girls don’t have access to these interactions until later in adulthood. Her idea of multiple virginities is one of the most beautiful concepts I’ve read about in ages.
Olivia Laing, The Lonely City (Picador, 2016): Ever since devouring Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together (a must-read classic), I’ve been very curious about this concept of loneliness and how it might manifest in a more digital and urban world. Olivia’s writing is hauntingly beautiful, and made me rethink our modern notions of progress and development.
As I said, my breakup with “The Future According to Women” devastated me. If you have any other book recommendations, authored by bad-ass women, please don’t hold out. It will be a long summer otherwise.
I suggest my sex farce poetry book Destroyer of Naivetés that was released last year on Punctum Books. Destroyer of Naivetés is an epic passion poem that takes up a position of excess from within a society that believes that the less you conceal, the stranger you become.
An audio recording of Destroyer of Naivetés will be released this year on the Entr’acte label out of Antwerp.
I read two or three books a week – sometimes more if I’m not bumping up to the end of a writing deadline. I’ve got a stack of about 200 or so books that are waiting for me to read them, and yet I can’t stop buying new books to add to the pile.
What I read tends to depend on where I am in the writing process. I read a mix of fiction (all genres) and nonfiction, but I tend to read more fiction when I’m starting to write a book and more nonfiction when I’m finishing one – mostly because I don’t want another author’s fiction voice interfering with my own. I’m finishing up a manuscript now so there’s more nonfiction queued up than fiction at the moment.
Kameron Hurley’s The Geek Feminist Revolution (Tor, 2016) is an immediate reading priority. I love her writing voice, and she’s the kind of writer that talks about issues I care about – feminism, geek culture, women in science fiction and fantasy among other topics – in a way that always has me nodding along saying, “Yes, that is true. Yes, that is all true.” I’m looking forward to reading this collection and recommending it to everyone I know.
Carl Hiaasen’s Razor Girl (Knopf, 2016) is released the day after Labor Day (our unofficial end to summer), but it’s still one of my most anticipated new releases. Hiaasen’s sharp writing and dangerous wit make him one of my favorite writers. His books are full of insane, unpredictable characters that make me laugh out loud.
The book I am most excited about this month, and setting aside time to read slowly and take in at many levels — intellectual and existential — is Robert Berwick and Noam Chomsky’s Why Only Us: Language and Evolution (MIT Press, 2015). It is an attempt to answer the title question in the face of the challenge from animal cognition researchers to Chomsky’s claims for a unique, innate, universal syntax processor in the human brain. Berwick, one of the world’s leading natural language AI experts, and someone I worked with at MIT on educational applications and have enormous admiration and respect for, supplies the computational model to support Chomsky’s revised and streamlined linguistic model for a minimal shared processor.
The idea is that a small but powerful module is unique to us, and that its key function is to support the medium of human abstract thought. But this is more than a technical explanation of an arcane controversy in cog sci — it is a profound exploration of what it means to be human, what sets us apart from whatever we think may be going on in the minds of our primate close cousins and the feathered, furred, and finned members of our large extended family of life forms. It is a short book, lucidly written despite the challenging complexity of the argument. The logic is clear, and every page connects to a large body of research pro- and con- and every chapter opens up a new set of both disturbing and thrilling questions about who we are and how we came to be us. In some ways this may be the light side of the force that counters the better known and to me very foolish worries about the “singularity.” Kurzweil’s schema erases the difference between human and robot brain (except as matter of processing power), Berwick & Chomsky would move us further from the animal brain. It is, in my view, one of the signal projects of the humanities in the 21st century to help us understand our place in this new chain of being in which instead of the dumb beasts and angels to define our place, we have smart ravens on one side and even smarter computers on the other. I’m devouring this book in the hope of coming out the other end, whether assenting to or resisting their theory, with a much sharper map of this new territory.
My wife and I launched the Hong Kong Review of Booksthis year and its meant a huge number of exciting new books have passed through our hands. Picking just a few was difficult, but these would be a few of the stand-out books of the year so far that I’d recommend making special time for this summer. I’ve stuck to 2016 to make my choices easier.
Stephen Lee Naish, Create or Die: Essays on the Artistry of Dennis Hopper (Amsterdam University Press, 2016): Frank Booth: is there a more interesting Hollywood icon, especially from the perspective of psychoanalysis? Naish’s book explores Hopper’s powerful character in detail, but goes far further, analyzing Hopper as actor, director, advertiser, artist, political activist and more, delving into every corner of the career of this fascinating man. Blending critical distance with personal account of Hopper’s influence on him, Naish’s book is a page-turner printed by a university press, maybe the only one…
Laurent de Sutter, Théorie du Kamikaze (PUF, 2016): As yet only in French, this is one to hope comes out in translation soon. De Sutter’s powerful argument is that suicide bombing, or “kamikaze” cannot be simply seen, as it so often is, as a sacrifice of personal life to serve a greater cause (i.e religious fundamental ideology), making it a giving up of identity. Instead, du Sutter claims that the act of “kamikaze” in fact belongs in the world of images. The act of kamikaze, for de Sutter via Debord, is about creating a visual image of explosion and spectacle, giving it a new meaning in relation to postmodern image-obsessed society.
Grant Hamilton, The World of Failing Machines: Speculative Realism and Literature (Zero Books, 2016): This book I was lucky to get a sneak peak at, and is to be published this summer. It applies the philosophy of OOO (Object Oriented Ontology) to literature, asking new questions about what kind of object a book really is. How do we relate to the book object in the way we do, and why? A very original book that makes readers reflect on themselves.
Coming just at the end of last year, I had to leave out two other texts that have been transformative for me: Steven Shaviro’s Discognition (Repeater Books, 2016) and Samo Tomšič’s The Capitalist Unconscious(Verso, 2015), both of which must be read.
Where to begin? As always, I’ve left this to the last minute, so forgive me the short blurbs!
Sally Mann, Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs (Back Bay, 2016): What a riveting memoir; Mann describes her adolescent and adult life in excruciating detail. No stone is left unturned, including the hate mail she received after her photos of her children, undressed, were published in a New York Times article and review of her work. And then came the stalker. As Patti Smith wrote of this book, “Hold Still is a wild ride of a memoir. Visceral and visionary. Fiercely beautiful. My kind of true adventure.”
Jim Harrison, The Ancient Minstrel (Grove Press, 2016): When Jim Harrison passed away, we lost one of America’s foremost masters of the novella. The Ancient Minstrel consists of three such novellas. The opening story, from which the book takes its title, sees Harrison making fun of his own reputation, although some were not happy with his Author’s Note where he considers his own aging “…and feeling poignantly the threat of death I actually said to myself, “Time to write a memoir.” So I did.” The part that offended some readers was where he imagines dying after choking on a fishbone and sprawling in an alley — he is discovered by a female jogger who stands over him in shorts. I’ll not be the spoiler here, but suffice to say Harrison crosses the line in his own, inimitable style. He’ll be missed.
Mary Beard, SPQR (Liveright, 2015): Growing up in northern England, I often visited a local ancient wall named after the Roman emperor, Hadrian. Hence its name — Hadrian’s Wall. Ever since I’ve been fascinated with Ancient Rome and the Romans. Mary Beard, a professor of classics at Cambridge University, has delivered “a sweeping revisionist history” as the back cover blurb says. And it is true. As she herself writes – “Roman history is always being rewritten, and always has been; in some ways we know more about ancient Rome than the Romans themselves did.”
Willa Cather, The Professor’s House (Vintage, 1990; 1925): This year I started to collect and read books written in the early to middle years of the 20th Century. That is how I discovered Willa Cather, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel, One of Ours, in 1923. (I’m amazed that I came so late to Cather’s work.)
The Professor’s House is a remarkable book. It follows a middle-aged professor whose life becomes disturbed when his wife takes on a new house for them to live in. The idea of moving unsettles him deeply, so deeply that he begins to assess his entire life from youth to adulthood. His realization that he must live alone comes to him quickly and disturbs him further — “…because there was Lillian, there must be marriage and a salary. Because there was marriage, there were children. Because there were children, and fervor in the blood and brain, books were born as well as daughters. His histories, he was convinced, had no more to do with his original ego than his daughters had; they were a result of the high pressure of young manhood.”
Two other early books that I highly recommend are by the author John Williams Stoner (NYRB Classics, 2006; 1965) and Butcher’s Crossing (NYRB Classics, 2007; 1960). Stoner follows a very similar curve to The Professor’s House. Another college professor who’s life is upended by his work, marriage and eventually trying to make sense of his own destiny. Butcher’s Crossing is a lightly-veiled allegory for the Vietnam War. Both are powerful novels.
Diane Williams, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine (McSweeney’s, 2016): I’m sure there are quite a few readers of this list that know of Diane Williams. They may also understand when I write that pinning down Williams’ work is not easy. Her latest book consists of 40 short stories, and by short I mean very short. Others have described her stories as “folktales that hammer like a nail gun.”
In a recent interview she was asked how she came up with the title. She answered: “The book’s title is taken from the story “The Little Bottle of Tears,” from the line: “How did all this end? Oh, fine, fine, fine, fine, fine.” So then I must have thought, I am not sure — end, end — Why can’t it all begin with Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine as well?”
This May I started a road trip, alone, from Houston to Los Angeles. After three weeks on and around (the/I-)10 and while in LA, a friend and I ventured to one of the downtown coffee shops. Despite two counts of street harassment upon reaching the threshold, I noticed the space had all the accoutrement of Urban Coffeeshop (TM): an expensive espresso machine, an iPad checkout, prerequisitely uncomfortable, unpolished metal furniture with exposed soldering. But there was something unsettling about the place: The spaces in between the objects overtly reading “Coffeeshop” were too big, and the more I think of it, were growing. The infant succulent dryly planted in a lightbulb shell (clearly with no expectations of outgrowth) was an inch too far from the wall, not enough to be at risk of falling but still too close for comfort; two decoration cappuccino cups and saucers were slightly askance, off-center, and alone on an oversized; “reclaimed wood” shelf installed a half a foot too close to the ceiling to be useful but not so close as to keep up the illusion of its authenticity. I tried to attribute this spatial absurdity to the overarching, over-reaching psychology of the city, like it was a fake place, a coffee shop playing at being a coffee shop, a site of unsettled transience that will be gone within a year as construction drives up the surrounding property values while driving away the customers unwilling to pay the harassment tolls, the baristas, in between acting and writing gigs (why don’t they act for me a decent pour?) share the same transience as their market value shifts within the rifts in the walls.
Don DeLillo Zero K (Scribner, 2016) and David Means Hystopia (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016): It has been said by others, but I will join the chorus and state that Zero K is DeLillo’s best book since 1997’s magnum opus Underworld. While there have been a handful of booklets in between (Falling Man, Point Omega), they were little more than rough sketches towards this cooly executed masterpiece. With its futuristic underground “hospital” and the cult-like, cryonics-obsessed believers of The Convergence it tackles, along with other massive subjects, notions of the Singularity. At times it has the feel of science fiction in its cold, austere settings, but at heart it is a brilliant meditation on mortality. DeLillo has returned to his throne.
David Means’ Hystopia is a strange, schizophrenic work. It carries an extraordinary premise. JFK has survived a number of assassination attempts and is in his fifth term as President. The Vietnam War drags on and hordes of psychologically damaged Vets are returning to America where they are treated with hallucinogens to “enfold” their traumatic memories via Kennedy’s Psych Corps, a new X-Files-like national entity devoted to maintaining the nation’s mental hygiene. Many evade the system and run amok, burning the country and reenacting the worst horrors of the war upon unwitting civilians. It is a piece of metafiction with a novel within a novel, medical reports and other detritus. It begins with tonal streaks of J.G. Ballard and Don DeLillo and, others have suggested, David Foster Wallace. There are hints, in its metafictional readjustment of history, of Philip K. Dick‘s The Man In The High Castle (where America lost WW2) and Alan Moore’s Watchmen (where America won Vietnam, Woodward and Bernstein were murdered before revealing Watergate and Nixon is in his third term). There are powerful hints of the influence of other powerful Vietnam books such as Stephen Wright’s Meditations in Green, Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers, Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke and Michael Herr’s Dispatches. Even the strange word used for the title, “hystopia” suggests an abundance of weirdness; the melding of “historical” and “hysteria” linked with “dystopia.” Even just the “hyst,” which according to the urban dictionary suggests “concentration breaker,” “mind robbing” and “subliminal thievery” suggests the worst excesses of this alternate 1960s America.
Unfortunately, despite the looming presence of a mass-murdering psychotic Vet, strange hallucinations, conspiracy theories and an America in flames, there are moments when Hystopia descends into what Ben Marcus famously dubbed, in his 2005 Harper’s attack on Jonathan Franzen, as “kitchen fiction” (indeed, quite literally in the rural kitchen scenes) or what Robert Hughes once suggested in Culture of Complaint as “bugs fucking to Mozart” in the Arcadian forest scenes. Means finds ways in which to avoid his own dystopian hell-hole by setting at least a third of the book in an idyllic, forested rural outpost and describing, in saccharine tones, the development of not one, but two love stories (this is balanced to a degree by a deranged mother who falls into fits of demented glossolalia.)
Mixing the dark with the soft dilutes the impact of an otherwise startling novel. The mix of the surreal with the syrupy means that Hystopia lacks the final bite of Ben Marcus’ The Flame Alphabet or McCarthy’s masterpiece The Road. David Means needed to decide whether to remain in the Kitchen or in Armageddon. Still, this is a stunning read, if for the well-crafted premise and language alone.
My hopes for an eloquent, expansive summer reading list have been unceremoniously girdled, chopped, topped and limbed by Annie Proulx’s remarkable Barkskins (Scribner, 2016), a 700-page epic novel that follows two families through the colonization of North America and, concomitantly, the systematic destruction of that continent’s forests. I laid hands on this brick of a book just before a three-day weekend camping on the coast, where I was pleased to find that the kids are adept enough in entertaining one another that I was allowed several hours of nothing but reading: reading on the beach, reading at the campsite, reading in the tent. A doorstop such as this is not something one generally recommends for “beach reading,” but aside from the intimidating bulk, the book is (pardon the pun) pitch-perfect for vacation days where you can actually schedule in a couple hours of reading time. The only problem, of course, is that it will be over too soon.
Proulx wastes no time diving into her tales, and fans of her earlier work will recognize the seeming effortlessness with which she unspools great lengths of story. I’ve already read a few sections of this novel, trimmed and edited to short-story length for the New Yorker, but the excerpts didn’t foretell the magnificence of the book as a whole. Proulx’s way of mapping out her novel is deliciously gratifying: time moves forward in echoing blocks, so that we may read about the same passage of decades from two or three different perspectives, and the overlappping of the generations adds to the sense of reverberation as the events and characters trickle down through the years.
Compared to many of her earlier works, Barkskins is distinguished by more complexly and sympathetically drawn characters, and less of her signature brutality and suddenness (though such bluntness is still very present). Some characters have wonderful, loving lives, despite the rugged times and desperate circumstances, and the book in general carries more joy than the average Proulx. I’m presently about halfway through, and am sensing a reconciliation coming as the various families attempt to rebuild their timber businesses amidst an imminent colonial revolt and the expansion of their empires ever deeper into the continent. Along with the sadnesses that accompany the death and destruction of the various humans in the book, the most heartbreaking aspect is the slow, sure, wholesale eradication of the old forests of our continent, and the similarly relentless erasing of the First People who made their lives in those forests. Proulx takes no delight in this gruesome arc, yet her story depends on it. Leaning on thorough descriptions and well-turned visits into the psyches of the various characters, the author deals the cards of fate with a careful, yet impassive hand. That such a wondrously extensive tale feels flowing and effortless is a testament to Annie Proulx’s astonishing abilities as a storyteller and writer.
Some other books you should read this summer:
Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings (Riverhead, 2015) Brutal, fascinating, and a whirlwind of voice and cadence. I am still working my way through this book, but the first section of it remains one of the most amazing stories I’ve ever experienced as a reader.
Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution (NYRB Classics, 2009): An explanation of natural farming from the Japanese contrarian who invented it. Fukuoka is mercurial and blunt, but his approach to plants and nature is open-hearted. After hearing about his techniques for so many years, I am enjoying reading about them in his own voice.
And three debut short story collections. All brilliant, yet flawed, and certainly worth your time:
The first thing to tackle on any summer reading list would be your guilt books. That is, not books that are guilty pleasures, but rather books whose presence on your book shelf makes you feel guilty because the title is so obviously worthy and yet it has gathered dust. For me the big guilt book would be Slavoj Zizek’s Less Than Nothing (Verso, 2013). This was Zizek’s much anticipated “big book on Hegel” from 2013. It’s 2016 now, the book is still sitting on my shelf in between The Parallax View (MIT Press, 2009) and Living in the End Times (Verso, 2011). A few years back I finished reading Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (Oxford University Press, 1976), and this would’ve made a good follow-up if I’d read it promptly. Time to dust it off and tackle it now.
Another book that I’ll be reading this summer is Kyle Arnold’s The Divine Madness of Philip K. Dick (Oxford University Press, 2016) a book I was assigned to read for the Hong Kong Review of Books. As a Philip K. Dick fanatic, and having read Lawerence Suttin’s fine biography Divine Invasions (Harmony, 1989) when that book came out 20 years ago, I’m very much looking forward to finding out what a clinical psychologist will make of the life and literature of Philip K Dick. The pull quote from the back of the jacket is fascinating, “Despite Dick’s paranoia, his divine madness was not a sign of mental illness, but a powerful spiritual experience conveyed in the images of science fiction.” I’m sure reading this will make me pine for my younger days when I was more prone to mysticism.
Jeff Bursey’s Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (2016) is a book I look forward to rereading as I try to promote it for Zero Books. Bursey is a Canadian novelist and literary critic and his book on outsider literature is due out from Zero on July 29th. I’ll be rereading this one because, of the titles due out in July, this one comes closest to sharing my own sensibilities. As a somewhat neglected novelist, I am glad to be publishing Bursey’s book on Matt Unt, Ornela Vorpsi, and Joseph McElroy.
On the political side of my summer, I’ve currently got Raya Dunayevskaya’s Marxism and Freedom (Humanity Books, 2000) open on my nightstand. Dunayevskaya is a somewhat overlooked Marxist. She was Trotsky’s secretary for a time and then broke with him when Trotsky insisted that the Soviet Union was a “deformed worker’s state.” Dunayevskaya was sure that the Soviet Union was merely State Capitalist and her book on Marxism demonstrates that her insights were consistent.
When it comes to fiction I’ll be reading Geoff Nicholson’s 2014 novel The City Under the Skin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Nicholson is one of my favorite novelists. I recently interviewed him for Zero Book’s new line of books entitled “Advancing Conversations” and his first book Street Sleeper (Quartet, 1987) is a classic.
When I was young, I read. All the time. But I didn’t really know how to read. Not really. My eyes scanned the lines. My mind made images. In middle school, in the 80s, I signed up for the Science Fiction Book Club. (I wish I still had all of those books. Even Anne McCaffrey’s dragons.) One of books that came from that association, and that left many images (but little solid) behind, was Greg Bear’s Eon (Tor Books, 2015; 1985). Those images lingered for decades. Earlier this year, I realized that the only non-academic (or at least not directly work related) reading I had done for what seemed like years was from the Finnegans Wake on my bedside table. So when I recently stumbled upon a rumpled paperback copy of Eon, I grabbed it. Then I found out it was part of a trilogy: Eternity, the sequel, and Legacy, the prequel. I slowly savored and digested all three over the next few weeks. Not only did the decades-old images from the first book match what I found when I returned to them, they were startlingly recognizable, tangy, and clear. Now, over the summer, I have a short stack of Greg Bear books to saunter through and linger over, including City at the End of Time, Slant, the novella Heads, and a collection of relatively early short stories, Tangents. I can’t claim to be a science fiction expert, but I’ve read a bit.
The most interesting thing, for me, about science fiction is how strongly it inevitably reflects the present. To get an idea of this, find yourself a copy of Tom Shippey’s Oxford Book of Science Fiction Short Stories (Oxford University Press, 2003) and read through history in the shape of the future. Feel the development of the collective imagination sculpted from the shifting present, from H. G. Wells’ hydraulic mechanics at the beginning of the 20th century, through the nuclear visions of mid-century, to the biological, neurological, psychological, and cyberpunk that tracked the changes, and the fears, of a century that hoped despite itself. Greg Bear’s work is largely part of the biological, neurological, and psychological exploration of the technological that came of the 1980s and 90s, a legacy of Cold War preoccupations that shifted into cyberpunk. And, having looked again, I can now recognize the influence it had on me. Bear is often fascinated not only by the evolutionary and technological extension of human neurobiology, but by the possibility of nonhuman psychologies, the intelligence of the viral or the plant-like. Slipping through such stories as a kid contributed significantly to my curiosity about differences in psychological perspective and the relations among perception, conception, and language. It’s a good time for such interests. Quite a lot of very interesting reading is surfacing about perception and conception beyond our traditional and convention blinders of visual bias, including Matthew Fulkerson’s The First Sense: A Philosophical Study of Human Touch (MIT Press, 2013), Gary Tomlinson’s, A Million Years of Music: The Emergence of Human Modernity (Zone Books, 2015), and Phillip Vannini, Dennis Waskul, & Simon Gottschalk’s The Senses in Self, Society, and Culture (Routledge, 2013). These will also season my summer, but I’m looking forward to curling up in the sunshine with my new, old, Greg Bear books, and wading again through future histories past.
I’ve been lucky enough to spend the last year as a fellow at the Huntington Library working on a book about the cultural histories of Los Angeles, so my list this summer focuses on Southern California. But, as former journalist turned studio hack Don Ryan wrote back in 1929, Los Angeles is the “city with the aspirations for the Los Angelicization of the world!”
To take a break from all this history, I’ll tackle Don Ryan’s Angel’s Flight (Boni & Liveright, 1927), the book from whence the quote above was pulled. It’s perhaps the first great novel from and of Los Angeles in the 20th century. Ryan presaged elements of Raymond Chandler’s noir on the one hand, and the dark satire of Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust on the other, telling tales of the city as its boosterish Babbitts intersected with the seediness of downtown Los Angeles, decades before it became hipsterized into today’s real-estate friendly acronym, DTLA.
On my shelf is Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson (Simon & Schuster, 2014), a new biography by Jeff Guinn. To complement this well-researched contemporary account, I’ll read Ed Sanders’ The Family, originally published in 1971, as a way to burrow further into the dark side of LA in the ‘60s. A member of a band called The Fugs as well as a poet, Sanders really catches the vibe of the era, and profoundly understands while remaining contemptuous of Manson’s descent into murder and madness. I’m looking forward to Emma Cline’s The Girls (Random House, 2016), a novelization from the other side of Manson’s pimpy grift. To round this out, I’ll take another look at Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (Ace, 1991), which Manson had fellow cons at McNeil Island Penitentiary explain to him (Manson was not exactly a big reader), and from which he drew some of the rituals to which he subjected the Family and its hangers-on. From grokking to orgiastic water ceremonies, there’s a weird throughline from ‘50s science fiction to the Spahn Ranch (with a stopover in Dianetics and Scientology, but you’ll have to wait for my book for that story).
On the non-SoCal beat, I’m looking forward to A Burglar’s Guide to the City (FSG Originals, 2016) by bldgblog.com’s Geoff Manaugh, an innovative rethinking of urbanism and architecture via true crime. Speaking of true crime, I’ll be reading the most recent book of another historian’s life work, Rick Perlstein’s third volume of the story of the American right since the 1960s. Both Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (Nation Books, 2009) and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (Scribner, 2009) were rare books by a non-movement historian that conservatives were willing to acknowledge, and in some cases even admire, for their rigor and straightforward approach to the growth of the post-WWII right. Not so The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (Simon & Schuster, 2015), which was insufficiently idolatrous towards the only elected president the Republican right likes to invoke from the last hundred years (TR was too anti-trusty, Coolidge and Hoover – well, they were Coolidge and Hoover, Ike kept taxes high and wasn’t enough of a war-monger, Tricky Dick was too crazy, Bush I wasn’t crazy enough, and Bush II while crazy, invaded Iraq instead of Grenada and tanked the economy to boot). Perlstein is a major guide to how we got to where we are now, with one of the two major parties of the 20th century having in the 21st nominated an ignoramus billionaire (millionaire more likely) reality television star, who is mentally unstable, racist, and misogynist, not to mention being a mutant orange rage machine. This is neither the Californian nor the American Dream, it is a nightmare which we must fight.
I’m anxiously awaiting the July release of Megan Abbott‘s next book, You Will Know Me (Little, Brown & Co., 2016). Her last three had me riveted all the way through. And too late for summer but eagerly anticipated is James Gleick‘s Time Travel: A History (Pantheon, 2016), which comes out in September (I got an advanced-reading copy, and it is awesome; more on that later). In the meantime, there are these:
Steven Shaviro, Discognition (Repeater, 2016): I do my best to read novels and biographies during the summer, but the research and the nonfiction creeps in anyway. In Discognition, Steven Shaviro parses the thick thicket of thinking using examples from science fictions of all kinds. Discognition explores the area between sentience and consciousness through computers, aliens, and slime molds, as well as several specific kinds of human—from philosophers to killers.
Doug Stanhope, Digging Up Mother: A Love Story (Da Capo, 2016): Stanhope’s new book, as it states right on the cover, is a love story and a memoir. If you want to know what he’s done since his last DVD or since the last time you saw him live, check Youtube. Most of this book happens before that was even possible. Many a buried back-story is unearthed here: Doug’s earliest days as a road comic, when he actually lived on the road – in his car; his stint as an innovative, master cold-calling telemarketer; one-nighters, hell gigs, middling, featuring, telling jokes to the elderly on a tour bus, and “making it” in all of its elusive meanings; many days and nights of performances, beverages, and substances. There’s quite a lot of the latter, and Mother is there for every phase, step, and bump along the way. [See my full review on Splitsider]
Ever get creeped-out when Facebook automatically recognizes you or one of your friends in a photo? Facial recognition has been around for ages, but it’s starting to get disturbingly adept. There are haircuts and makeup tactics that can trick such cameras and software into not recognizing your face as a face, like the “ugly shirt” in William Gibson‘s Spook Country (2008). Obfuscation is akin to masking your identity without wearing a mask.
I loathe the phrase “hiding in plain sight,” but there’s no better way to easily describe the practice. “It’s a somewhat blurry line, but obfuscation is different than concealment,” Finn Brunton told Joe Uchill at Passcode. “Obfuscation is the production of ambiguous, confusing, or deliberately misleading information in context where direct observation cannot be avoided.” It can be a lot more technically complex than just encoding a message for a certain audience (see Wayner, 2009), but Brunton, along with Helen Nissenbaum, have just released the highly readable Obfuscation: A User’s Guide for Privacy and Protest (MIT Press, 2015), which covers all sorts of contexts and uses for obfuscation, including Facebook’s “real name” policy and social steganography. Brunton continues,
In the case of Facebook, people who are fighting the name policy might not be doing so because they want to conceal an identity, but because for them it’s very important that they are able to have two different identities. But people who are doing exactly that might also be using obfuscation on Facebook, in the sense that for example, in the middle of bland updates on a real name account is a note that only friends who understand their lives will get the actual significance, so that the really salient activity can be buried in a bunch of other things that all seem unimportant.
danah boyd and Alice Marwick (2011) found that some teenagers use allusions to music, movies, and shows as a form of obfuscation on social media. boyd calls it “social steganography” (p. 22). Users hide an encoded message where no one is likely to look for it: right out in the open. Carmen, one of their interviewees, has problems with her mother commenting on her statuses on Facebook. She finds it an invasion of her privacy, and her mom’s eagerness to intervene squelches the online conversations she has with her friends. When Carmen broke up with her boyfriend, she wanted to express her feelings to her friends without alarming her mother. Instead of posting her feelings directly, she posted lyrics from “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” Not knowing the allusion, her mom thought she was having a good day. Knowing that the song is from the Monty Python movie Life of Brian (1979) and that it is sung while the characters are being crucified, Carmen’s friends knew that all was not well and texted her to find out what was going on (boyd & Marwick, 2011).
The need for obfuscation as Brunton and Nissenbaum see it is largely based on all the data we give away everyday without knowing what end that data is being put toward. Our ignorance could be completely benign, but it could be held against us. We blindly trust entities that may not hold our best interests very dear. Our lack of knowledge and control is exactly what the authors wish to fight.
In Improper Names: Collective Pseudonyms from the Luddites to Anonymous(University of Minnesota Press, 2015), Marco Deseriis follows the genealogy of another form of obfuscation: pseudonyms—from Ned Ludd to Luther Blissett, on through the massively “multiple-use,” improper name, Anonymous, among others. These collective pseudonyms are “improper” in the sense that their referents remain floating. “Contrary to a proper name,” Deseriis writes, “whose chief function is to fix a referent as part of the operation of a system of signs, an improper name is explicitly constructed to obfuscate both the identity and the number of its referents” (p. 3). Using these names not only hides users’ identities, their use evokes rich histories and aligns struggles with similar lineages. Deseriis pulls all of this together, illuminating an important yet oddly overlooked area of study.
In our age of increasing online anomie, these two books provide the tools for maintaining a modicum of control, wacky haircut and makeup notwithstanding.
boyd, danah & Marwick, Alice E. (2011, September 22). Social Privacy in Networked Publics: Teens’ Attitudes, Practices, and Strategies. Paper presented at Oxford Internet Institute’s A Decade in Internet Time: Symposium on the Dynamics of the Internet and Society, Oxford, England.
Brunton, Finn & Nissenbaum, Helen. (2015). Obfuscation: A User’s Guide for Privacy and Protest. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Deseriis, Marco. (2015). Improper Names: Collective Pseudonyms from the Luddites to Anonymous. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Uchill, Joe. (2015, November 16). How to Hide Your Digital Trail in Plain Sight. CSM: Passcode.
Wayner, Peter. (2009). Disappearing Cryptography: Information Hiding: Steganography and Watermarking. Burlington, MA: Morgan Kaufmann.