Saturday, 1 October 2016

Irresponsible Heideggerean Musings

I've started an MA in philosophy.

One of my great and primary philosophical influences is Martin Heidegger. It's been a real pleasure to have some time and space to actually sit and read him, and read around him, again. I may do my dissertation on him.

These are some thoughts I jotted down recently. Likely unoriginal, but I'll share them all the same. There may be more to follow. 

God, Materialism and Being

Why isn't God the answer to the Question of Being? Because if God exists, then He is a being among beings. Even if He's the origin of all beings, and the foremost being in existence: how can a being be regarded as the font and ground of Being as such? God Himself is not to be regarded as the root of Being. 

The Nothingness of Being hangs over God as it hangs over everything.

This means nothing for the question of His existence per se, it is merely a comment on what His existence would precisely not mean.

But God is dead these days, as far as most people are concerned, though the God of the West (for the last thousand-plus years) has a habit of cheating death, so maybe we should watch this space. 

Anyway, with God in eclipse there is instead the material. So let's talk about that.

Material is not the answer to the Question. How could it be? Even if base material, or first substance, were the root of all beings, that says as little for the Question of Being as God's role as maker of all things did. If base material exists, it is an entity among entities. It is not the ground of Being.

Materialism, then, is as forgetful of ontology as traditional religion.

I don't see how any account of 'transcendental materialism' could escape this either. 

Friday, 12 August 2016

Interesting Things (1)

As seems customary for a blog, I'm going to start sharing roundups of various Interesting Things I've come across over the week.

You don't get any points for recognising the format (and you've all probably read/listened to at least some of these).

From beyond the orbit of Neptune!

Not read this yet, but it ticks all the right boxes (superficially, at least).

Ve shall build a new vorld, under ze ice!


David J of Bauhaus was in a band with Alan Moore, talks to Phil Sandifer about magick and Northampton.

Currently listening to this.

And going to listen to this.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

THAT Žižek article

So, this happened.

There's a lot to say about this, such as this and this.

I'm not going to offer a survey of the (absolutely appropriate and on point) criticisms mentioned above. I'm not going to dignify the other criticisms accusing Žižek of being some kind of crypto-Nazi either.

I'm just going to offer a few vague ideas about what it is he's actually trying to articulate in the article in question.

I'm not suggesting that this is exhaustive, not even slightly. For a start, I'm going to leave the Lacanian stuff to one side because I've not read Lacan and I don't feel equipped to discuss any of that. Instead, I'm just going to give you a few short words about what I took him to be saying.

  1. Gendered (and all other) social relationships under capitalism suck
  2. All the same, there is something irreducible about the binary of gender, an antagonism in their very differentiation 
  3. Opening up the field of sexuality and gender to make room for a larger number of possible identities than the traditional binaries of sex and gender will not resolve the antagonism between the genders (any more than opening up the field of possible relationships with capital will resolve the primary antagonisms within the capitalist system) 
  4. Closing the field of sexuality and gender to restrict possible identities to the traditional binary and the traditional 'norms' of sex will not resolve the antagonism either 
  5. The queer rights movement, the trans rights movement and the work of deconstructing gender have been absolutely right to expose the historically contingent character of gender and sexual (social) identities  
  6. All the same, we shouldn't kid ourselves that we can do away with all social problems by simply allowing room for more identities than just the man/woman binary and heterosexuality 
  7. Discourse surrounding sex and gender prejudice often glides over class and race struggle in a deeply problematic way 
  8. Žižek could have said all of this a lot better

I'm not really defending the article, which is in places almost unforgivable, but there are ideas going on here, even if they're poorly put across and just weird. But ultimately, this is classic Žižek: highly suspicious of postmodern theory, reliant on psychoanalysis, fundamentally Hegelian.

Is he queerphobic and/or transphobic? In the sense of asking if he's opposed to furthering the rights of queer and trans people, no of course he isn't. One can be suspicious of postmodern theories of gender without advocating a biological or social essentialism that restrains the possibility of non-binary and non-heteronormative identities. And, ok, I can't quite remember where I heard him say it, but I have recently heard him flat-out say that the radical left ought to view the still-recent sexual and gender freedoms we now possess as victories.

All of this being said, one wonders how many trans people Žižek knows. It was actually a trans friend who alerted me to this piece in the first place, and I'm going to give her the last word: 'Well, he did a better job of it than Germaine Greer.'

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

'Universal' Culture

I'm aware that I'm probably being a bit too postmodern or structuralist or whatever in my analysis here, and, as ever, criticism is welcome. I also think the coherence of this piece is a bit tenuous, but, hell, I'll only get better if I keep trying...

The inimitable Scott Alexander has, once again, written An Interesting Thing, in response to Another Interesting Thing.

There's good stuff in this one:
I am pretty sure there was, at one point, such a thing as western civilization. I think it involved things like dancing around maypoles and copying Latin manuscripts. At some point Thor might have been involved. That civilization is dead. It summoned an alien entity from beyond the void which devoured its summoner and is proceeding to eat the rest of the world.
“[W]estern medicine” is just medicine that works. It happens to be western because the West had a technological head start, and so discovered most of the medicine that works first. But there’s nothing culturally western about it; there’s nothing Christian or Greco-Roman about using penicillin to deal with a bacterial infection.
“Western culture” is no more related to the geographical west than western medicine. People who complain about western culture taking over their country always manage to bring up Coca-Cola. But in what sense is Coca-Cola culturally western? It’s an Ethiopian bean mixed with a Colombian leaf mixed with carbonated water and lots and lots of sugar. An American was the first person to discover that this combination tasted really good – our technological/economic head start ensured that. But in a world where America never existed, eventually some Japanese or Arabian chemist would have found that sugar-filled fizzy drinks were really tasty. It was a discovery waiting to be plucked out of the void, like penicillin. America summoned it but did not create it. If western medicine is just medicine that works, soda pop is just refreshment that works.

Read the whole article. It's great fun, as is ever the case with Scott Alexander. If you're one of those people who thinks that 'TL;DR' is ever a good response, I'll summarise: Alexander's argument is in response to a short piece by Bryan Caplan in which he argues that Western civilisation isn't anywhere near as fragile as people make it out to be, and that it is merrily conquering the whole world through sheer niceness and awesomeness. Alexander's response is a qualifier to Caplan, that it isn't 'Western civilisation' that's doing all this, it's something very different, which he dubs 'universal culture'.

The thing that makes it universal is that it's much more objective than other cultural forms and practices, which is why it works better and keeps winning. Hence the above comments about 'medicine that works' and 'soda pop that works'.

Now, I think I mostly agree with where he's coming from, but I think a few caveats are worthwhile.

First of all, he equates things that are obviously universally and objectively true, like medicine-that-works and drinks-that-are-nice with values he then posits as being universally and objectively true as well, such as 'democracy' and 'liberalism' and 'egalitarianism'. Is it really the case that these values have an objective and universal truth to them in the same way that the efficacy of penicillin and the tastiness of coke do?

A response to that would be that, from a utilitarian perspective, you could argue that values can be universally and objectively true if they consistently produce desirable utility outcomes, but that doesn't address the fact that the values behind the utility measure are very much grounded in contingent Western values about the desirability of reducing moral questions to utility calculations in the first place!

He also, and this is the most curious thing for me, seems to equate 'universal culture' with global capitalism. Indeed, his demonic metaphors made me think of Deleuze and Gauttari's characterisation of capitalism as the unspeakable Thing that demolishes all values, the monster all despotic civilisations had to guard against that, eventually, ate them alive. I think his essay would have been much improved by the concept of 'deterritorialisation'.

(I want Scott to read Anti-Oedipus. I don't have my copy to hand but I distinctly remember D & G talking about the contingent origins of global-capitalism in a little peninsula on the edge of Asia (that's us, Europe), with the great expanse of the sea's horizon calling us to explore it, with the competitive disorder of the web of feudal societies making the kind of general harmony found in China impossible, creating an ideal environment for the emergence of Capital.)

Gathering my thoughts together, my key point is this: he's wrong to suggest that world-culture or global-culture or 'universal' culture is somehow a-cultural, that it isn't at least partially still inhabited with the specific cultural contingencies of its origin. What about other cultural elements that aren't so easily reducible to objective science? The ubiquity of Western media and fashion, for instance, doesn't strike me as being to do with Western movies being 'objectively' better or Western fashion being 'objectively' superior. They strike me as contingent cultural features that became global on the back of global capitalism. Perhaps that's all these remnants of the distinctively western are, but I don't think so. Modernity is distinctively Western, because the idea of modernity itself is fundamentally Western.

Alexander recently shared this article on the tribalism of people who characterise themselves as cosmopolitan, as opposed to the stereotypical 'Little Englander'.
This species [of cosmopolitan] is racially diverse (within limits) and eager to assimilate the fun-seeming bits of foreign cultures — food, a touch of exotic spirituality. But no less than Brexit-voting Cornish villagers, our global citizens think and act as members of a tribe. They have their own distinctive worldview (basically liberal Christianity without Christ), their own common educational experience, their own shared values and assumptions (social psychologists call these WEIRD — for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic), and of course their own outgroups (evangelicals, Little Englanders) to fear, pity and despise. And like any tribal cohort they seek comfort and familiarity: From London to Paris to New York, each Western “global city” (like each “global university”) is increasingly interchangeable, so that wherever the citizen of the world travels he already feels at home.
That sounds a lot like what Alexander is trying to present as universal and a-cultural...

I don't want to agree with Nick Land here, but I'm reminded of one of the possible outcomes he gives for global modernity in The Dark Enlightenment:
(1) Modernity 2.0. Global modernization is re-invigorated from a new ethno-geographical core, liberated from the degenerate structures of its Eurocentric predecessor, but no doubt confronting long range trends of an equally mortuary character. This is by far the most encouraging and plausible scenario (from a pro-modernist perspective), and if China remains even approximately on its current track it will be assuredly realized. [My emphasis.]
That is, Land anticipates that modernity, which I think is identical to what Alexander calls 'universal culture', may happen all over again, but with the unique and contingent cultural inheritance of somewhere other than Western Europe and its former colonies.

The problem here is that Alexander has fallen for the great conceit of liberal modernity, namely, that it really is universal and objective, and isn't grounded in pre-existing cultural norms. It pretends to be the light when really it just carries the candle.

Added: I'm not trying to make the relativist argument that as our values appear to emerge from contingencies that all cultural norms should be treated with equal respect, I'm just trying to, at the very least, render problematic the idea that our present global order is somehow 'objectively' correct.

Friday, 22 July 2016

The Neon Demon (2016)

Spoilers below 

Imagine an unconscionably unhealthy but irresistible dessert. Dark chocolate, rich flavour, perhaps with a fleck of edible gold-leaf on top. Or perhaps something with chemical colouring, bright, absurd blues and greens not seen anywhere in nature. You suspect that it will probably shorten your life slightly, but you can't resist it all the same, and you try not to think about what went into producing the impossibly intense flavours.

That's what this film is like. It is luxuriously decadent and profoundly unhealthy. This is a film that revels in superficiality, in duplicitous surfaces, and bathes in the bright neon glow of the artificial. It is a film that is far more concerned with style than substance, and the style in question is so engaging that it captivates and entrances the viewer.

It follows a young woman, a just-turned-sixteen virgin named Jesse, who arrives in L.A. looking to become a model. She's too young to understand the world she's in, but old enough to know she needs friends. Old enough to know that her beauty gives her power. She transitions from innocence to corruption, her hubris lying in her open acknowledgement of her looks and her mocking condemnation of women who 'starve to death' trying to approach her beauty.

What makes her so special? Her beauty is natural. It's all her, no surgery or artifice has gone into it. And yet, for her first professional shoot, she's stripped naked just so she can be covered in gold paint. Her natural beauty becoming distorted by a literal layer of falsehood. The surface obscuring the interior, the artificial obscuring the natural.

Early on we're told that women are more likely to buy lipsticks named for food or sex, and the predatory women (whose beauty is so affected that they are almost posthuman, or at least inhuman) that our heroine 'befriends' decide that Jesse is most certainly food. I mentioned her hubris above: her punishment is to be literally eaten by these grotesque creatures, these parodies of humanity.

Is it a satire of the fashion industry? Probably, but its satire is so obvious that my instinct is to say that the satire itself is a layer of superficiality, of deceit. It is so blunt, so lacking in nuance in its critique of an industry everyone knows is vicious that I don't want to grant that it is about that at all: but maybe that's just because I want a film so visually splendid to have some depth beneath its surface.

This is a film about surfaces more than anything else, about surfaces that glide and flow and move over unknown and invisible depths. Depths so deep that, maybe, they might as well not exist at all. The concern it has for the surface and its disdain for the inner perhaps suggests that the film should be regarded entirely as what it appears to be on the surface: a visually striking erotic horror film with pretensions of satire (and oh that soundtrack...). 

And yet the film undermines this reading with its conclusion. At a photo shoot featuring two of the trio who have consumed Jesse's beauty like a mere resource, one falls violently ill, vomits up one of Jesse's eye balls, and dies cutting herself open to 'get her out'. The revenge of the suppressed interior!

The most clear juxtaposition in the film is between the artificial and the natural, more so than between the superficial and the deep simply because the deep is something we have to assume, rather than something we're shown as clearly as the natural. As I said above, Jesse's beauty is distinct because it is not the result of artifice; she was born beautiful and that's that. In contrast, Gigi, one of the three women who will (again, quite literally) eat Jesse for her beauty, has had so much plastic surgery her surgeon nicknames her 'The Bionic Woman' ('Is that a compliment?' asks Jesse). Incidentally, it is Gigi that dies vomiting up Jesse's remains at the end of the film. The revenge of the exploited natural, and the suppressed interior!

The natural/artificial angle is one that it is worth spending time thinking about. We hear again and again that natural beauty is always superior to artificial beauty, but is the suggestion that natural beauty is simply more beautiful, or that its naturalness is the source of its superiority in itself? That is, the natural isn't simply more beautiful, but that natural beauty's status as natural, and not the product of human ingenuity, grants it an inner authenticity that cannot be replicated artificially because such replication would, precisely, rob it of that authentic quality. It is the product of chance, not design, and has a unique value because of that. The artificial attempts to subsume the natural as pure resource, only for the natural, the inner, the bloody guts of the thing itself to be literally vomited up.

Furthermore, this juxtaposition is exemplified in the very shooting of the film; the fashion, party and photo shoot sequences are stylised to the point of being almost hallucinogenic, while the scenes outside these settings are mundane and naturalistic.

A few final and more precise words: the performances are all very good, even (no, really) Keanu Reeves' offering as a spectacularly loathsome motel manager. Much of the limelight is, however, stolen by Jean Malone as Ruby. Malone is able to play the character as affable and friendly while having an obvious dark side to her.

The dialogue is somewhere between stilted and naturalistic in a way that is reminiscent of Lynch (whose Mulholland Drive is an overt influence), and the interactions between the women are pleasantly bitchy. Further, throughout the film Cliff Martinez's electronic (in places almost industrial) score carries you along like a tide, weaving into the visuals with remarkable skill, reminiscent of the eerie-though-beat-driven work of Pye Corner Audio.

By no means for the faint of heart, but an absolute treasure all the same.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Once again...

As ever, after an absence I feel the need to wave a big flag saying 'I'M STILL HERE!'

And, as ever, the only reason I've not been posting anything is I've not been bothered to write anything.

But have a couple of things anyway:


I'm toying with perhaps writing something trying to draw a parallel between the notion of Oedipus/Capital in Anti-Oedipus and the totalising tendency of Gestell in Heidegger's later writing. Can't promise that anything will happen with this any time soon, but a very, very rough outline would be something like:

For Deleuze & Guattari, Oedipus/Capital inflicts its codes onto the flows of productive desire, delimiting the range of productive desire within narrow limits (libidinal desire is coded through the frameworks of marriage, family, gender binary, heteronormativity etc.).

For Heidegger, Gestell is a particularly insidious form of revealing as in its purest form it masks its characters a form of revealing, presenting itself not as a perspective among others, but as the single, correct viewpoint upon the world. And this viewpoint is one where the world is only permitted to reveal itself to us as a calculable totality of resources ready for plundering.

(I'm not) Sorry for the gratuitous use of jargon there.


A friend managed to convince me join him at a local Effective Altruists meeting. The people there where exactly what I was expecting. Fiercely determined to do good, brilliantly intelligent, utterly, utterly caught up in their own way of thinking. It'd be unfair to say they were blinkered, and I had very good conversations with them, but in a memorable episode, one person outlined the epistemology he held, which was similar to the point of being identical with the phenomenological method of Husserl.

I pointed out this parallel, and was surprised that he'd not heard of Husserl. He informed me that he didn't bother with continental thinkers, as he saw nothing of value in them. 

Now I've said and thought the same about the Anglo-American tradition, so I'm in no position to criticise. But, it has made me wonder about this whole 'Analytic/Continental divide' business. I recall something I read in a book by Iris Murdoch once, that many of the ideas one finds in deconstruction were arguably hit upon and presented with greater clarity by Wittgenstein. 

I'm not familiar enough with either Wittgenstein or deconstruction to pass judgement on this, but my intuition agrees with Murdoch. 

Anyway, I'll try and post something that doesn't suck soon. 

Monday, 7 March 2016

Second Reading List for 2016

I'm going to write an overview of how I feel about what I read in my first list shortly, but having completed my first reading list, I'm going to make a habit of sharing what each subsequent list consists of in the hope this will help me stick to them, and because you might be interested.

Suggestions and recommendations are very welcome.

I'm also departing from the fiction/non-fiction structure I used before.

So, here's list two:

  1. England's Hidden Reverse by David Keenan (At the time of writing I've nearly finished this.)
  2. Basic Writings: Martin Heidegger edited by David Farrell Krell (I've read several of the essays in this collection already, but there's plenty I haven't, and I could do with refreshing my familiarity with what I've read already.)
  3. The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde
  4. Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher
  5. True Detection edited by Edia Connole, Paul J. Ennis, Nicola Masciandaro 

Tuesday, 9 February 2016


I've been toying with a conceptual dichotomy for a while. It's probably not tremendously original, but it's helping me clarify my thinking a little. And hopefully writing about it here will allow me to polish my ideas further. I'd advise anyone unfamiliar with accelerationism to read my previous post on it before continuing (though it's worth mentioning that my understanding of accelerationism in general and its leftwards current in particular has developed since the writing of that piece).

I propose anti-modernism be viewed as having two potential directions. One I'd like to call 'accelerationist' if that hadn't already been coined, so we might perhaps call it the impulse to go beyond, or 'beyonder'. That is, responding to the various deficiencies and pathologies of modernity with a desire to push ahead, to traverse modernity and seek something beyond it. In other words: 'the way out is through.'

I call the other direction 'reversalist'. Modernity is an aberration, a mistake. One cannot be expected to find a way out by going 'through' it any more than one would expect to cure cancer by letting it 'sort itself out'. The only option is to excise the tumour. As such, one must seek to return to how things were before the aberration. This may be framed as a need to 'rediscover' the eternal truths of morality and the social order. 'The way out is to go back.'

I am not saying these definitions are absolute. I am just throwing out some thoughts that I have had for public inspection and criticism. The act of writing them down, in and of itself, helps me shape and understand them.


I find these definitions useful as they cut across the left/right dichotomy. One can argue that the right has a greater tendency towards the reversalist than the beyonder orientation, but one can find many on the left who seek a 'return' of some kind. The left-reversalist position generally finds modernity synonymous with capital itself, an alienating (and alien) force that destroyed the 'genuine authenticity' of the organic community of pre-modernity, even if that community existed in the context of its own set of injustices, i.e. feudal hierarchy, women regarded essentially as property and so on. Disdain for technology is also often common. Jaques Camatte's primitivism is an example of this. Such an attitude is common in environmentalism in its more radical incarnation, often suffused with nostalgia and, I'd argue, a naive understanding of life in pre-modernity. The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, with its desire to rectify the great error that is humanity and return the biosphere to a pre-human state, may be described as either the absolute apotheosis of this position, or its moment of purest self-parody, depending on one's generosity.

The right-reversalist position may also contain an element of anti-capitalism, although generally in favour of some form of integralism or national socialism (though not necessarily National Socialism per se) over egalitarian, communal socialism. 'Rediscovery' or a 'homecoming' of some kind is generally the spirit of this position. Rediscovery of tradition, in either the weak or strong, capitalised sense of the word (Burke vs Evola and Guénon), restoration of legitimate authority (often monarchical), resurrection of the nation or race as a whole. Glorification of the past, especially a past characterised with imperial splendour, and a desire to return to it is key. It may not be a desire to return to 'how things were' simply because of their status as things passed. Rather, if Traditionalism is at the core of this tendency, the past is held up as an example of societies that were ordered according to values and principles considered eternal and perennial. The past is a thing to be returned to simply because it was ordered correctly, before the great error of modernity.

The beyonder current is well manifested in left-utopianism (anyone else remember that?). Pushing forward through this 'stage' in history, past capitalism into socialism and communism. Often, 20th Century communism displayed simply an outright rejection of the contemporary in favour of pursuing the future, or would attempt to outdo capitalism at its own game in terms of economic growth and prosperity. Left-accelerationism, to which I merrily confess the deepest of sympathies, is the most exciting manifestation of this position that I'm presently aware of. It possesses both a striking awareness of the problems of modern life with an impulse to rectify them which, I argue, is ultimately far more grounded in reality than the standard, insurrectionist response is. In seeking to turn modernity's successes against its failures, and to go beyond them into something altogether new, it captures the spirit of the beyonder impulse quite perfectly.

Much the same can be said of right-accelerationism, which we might as well call 'anarcho-techno-capitalism', though it lacks the sheen of utopianism. It identifies different problems with modernity than its leftwards twin does, but it still holds that the solution to the deficiencies of the contemporary is to go forwards rather than backwards. It is not a position that can be accused of nostalgia, as it draws upon what is useful from both the past and the present, the only worthwhile measure being its helpfulness. If it is 'Traditionalist' it is only in the loosest sense, the 'eternal law' being merely the laws of nature, its 'mysticism' being that of the Cthulhu Cult, rather than anything with regal grandeur.

Fascism was, arguably, a manifestation of this impulse as well, presenting itself as a force of renewal, both radically modernising the nation and restoring it to its past glory. The Futurists in Italy, with their paeans to technology, violence and velocity, and deep disdain for nostalgia and old things, and found themselves bedfellows with the Fascists. Nazism similarly presented itself as hostile towards the reactionary as well as the progressive. Something similar may be said of the Conservative Revolutionary Movement more generally, but that is pushing the boundaries of my knowledge.

A more problematic case is the Russian cosmists. Federov sought the past via way of the future. The powers of science and technology resurrecting the dead, unifying the world under the legitimate authority of the Tsar, the Church Fathers and Biblical Patriarchs, bringing the old prophets back to guide us more properly than we can guide ourselves. He sought an escape from modernity to the past via way of the future; less a revolution than a restoration. This might thus perhaps be called a reversalist position but here we see the boundaries becoming blurred to the point of non-existence.

Finally, where to place Neoreaction? Right-accelerationism has found its home there, arguably synonymous with 'techno-commercialism'. But NRx is a sufficiently broad church to resist easy definitions along the axis I propose. Certainly Moldbug seeks a reversal of modernity, though again via way of the future, with his image of a patchwork of for-profit run corporate city states relying on drones and sovereignty protected with encryption (though elsewhere I understand he lends his support to traditional forms of despotism and even monarchy). And the strain of NRx that was, at least formerly as I've no idea where he disappeared to, identifiable with Michael Annissimov was of a distinctly reversalist tone, as are the 'Heroic Reactionaries', that I understand. I actually wrote something about this particular tension in NRx a while ago, though the Reactosphere never had the big split I expected it to. Indeed, if anything it's become disappointingly quiet, but I digress.

I suggest using a beyonder/reversalist axis simply to add another layer of definition to our understanding of politics and ideology. If anything it can help us identify peculiar parallels between left and right we might not expect to see. Anyway, none of this has been thought out in much detail, so I invite the reader to comment on any inaccuracies, inconsistencies or stupidities in this piece.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

True Detective season two


Ok, first things first: overall, no, it's not as good as season one.

Now we've settled that, we can assess it on its own merits (and failures).

Set in California, the story follows four central characters: three cops and a gangster aspiring to be a businessman. A corrupt politician, who the gangster, Frank (Vince Vaughn), is working with to buy land that is going to sky-rocket in value due to a new travel infrastructure development, is tortured and murdered. His death is used as an excuse to send two cops from outside the area, the City of Vinci, to investigate the rumoured massive corruption in that city's police force and government; thus two cops, Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) and Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch), are deployed to officially work the case of the murder while unofficially being on a dirt digging mission. Ani works with the corrupt detective Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell), who has secretly been working with Frank for years, while Paul...smoulders with intensity a lot.

Are you with me so far?

Now, you might say that 'Well, that doesn't sound too complicated.' On the face of it, no. But, the story becomes increasingly difficult to follow as we join the characters descent into tighter and deeper and darker spirals of corruption. Frankly, the plot becomes virtually Byzantine, throwing off tendrils into the self-help craze of the 80s, rumours of the goings on at Bohemian Grove, as well as investigating the sheer corrosiveness of greed and power.

Further, four main characters was simply one too many. What's more, it's obvious who should have been cut: Paul. Now, I want to say that there was nothing wrong with the character as such, although he didn't get much development and I can't actually think of much to say about him except 'conflicted closeted gay man', and there was nothing wrong with Kitsch's performance. The problem was that the character, though compelling in his own right, added very, very little to the story. Indeed, the story could have carried on without him with only minimal tweaking, freeing up screen time to elucidate the very opaque plot.

In many ways, it felt like I was watching a first draft. There was great potential, but it desperately needed some tidying up. Indeed, HBO's Director of Programming has taken the blame for rushing the writer. If it there had been more focus, more direction, and some pretty brutal editing, it would have been far better than it was.

However, that's not to say that we didn't end up with something that was quite brilliant in its own right.

Now, although the story was very difficult to follow, if you try hard enough, you can make sense of it, and although it is unnecessarily convoluted, it still had me interested enough to follow it through to the end. And the pay-off was actually quite well executed. They'd wisely killed Paul off in the penultimate episode so we could focus on the genuinely very cool characters of Ray, Ani and Frank. What's more, it goes into some really interesting areas. Although there's not much focus on these aspects of the story, it was still pleasing to see something talking about the excesses and plain weirdness of the self-actualisation, alternative mental health brigade. There's the darkness surrounding 'men of influence' and what they do behind closed doors, too. A key thread throughout is the 'exclusive' parties where politicians, police and businessmen alike gather for sybaritic shenanigans galore, going from the plain old debauched to the murderous. This is, in my opinion, an obvious allusion to the Bohemian Club, an elite men's only club which has been dodging rumours of everything from being a glorified college fraternity to practising Pagan rituals for decades.

It's definitely not weird that we do this!

The music and cinematography are as strong as anything season one produced. The image of California it creates is not one of glamour and beauty but seediness and waste. The camera lovingly pans over industrial parks, deserts, waste lands and poisoned soil, the music raising these scenes into art in their own right. The title sequence is certainly at least as good as one's.

None of the performances fell flat, and all the characters were at least interesting. When I heard about the inclusion of more female characters, I did greet this with suspicion. Not, of course, because I don't think a female lead can be as compelling or generally cool as a male lead, but because there had been criticism levelled at season one for its overtly male focus, and I feared that we'd end up with some two-dimensional female characters that added nothing: I couldn't have been more wrong. Although no one in two is anywhere near as awesome as Rust was, Ani could give him a run for his money. She's intelligent, deep, complex, insightful and just awesome. Kelly Reilly plays Frank's wife Jordan, but she's no typical mobster's kept woman. She's forthright and decisive, staying with her husband when the chips are down because she chooses to. Indeed, I really bought into both of their performances as a couple.

Speaking of which: Vince Vaughn is brilliant in this. He plays Frank with a curious mixture of strength and sensitivity, as someone who is desperately trying to escape from his past into the legitimacy of 'real' business. Easily one of the key presences in the series, a thoughtful and intriguing character handled very well. However, it is Colin Farrell who really stands out as the tortured, crumbling ruin that is Ray Velcoro, a cop who is increasingly finding himself with little to live for.

Velcoro is a man whose life has been on a downwards incline for years. About ten years before the events of the show, his wife was sexually assaulted, and the name of the man who was responsible given to him by Frank. This decision, this giving in (one might say), is the point of no return. His wife divorces him in disgust for killing the man supposedly responsible for her rape, and is threatening to cut off all contact between him and his son (who may not even be his anyway) due to Ray's ultimately poisonous aura. He sinks further into a substance abuse, working closer and closer with Frank in a relationship that is oddly co-dependent. It's worth watching just for him.

Overall, this is something worth seeing, but don't expect to see season one again. Pizzolatto has demonstrated his boldness and daring as a writer by shying away from emulation, and like I've said already, if he had just been given more time one feels that this would really, really stand out as a modern classic of crime drama. Sadly, that was not quite to be.

A flawed masterpiece, to be sure, but worth your time all the same.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Review: The Glass Bees by Ernst Jünger

Thanks to Rowan Lock for the biographical details, and general assistance with writing.

You can get hold of the copy of The Glass Bees I read here.

Ernst Jünger was one of the true luminaries of the intellectual Right in the 20th century. A popular hero of the First World War, famous for his memoir of the conflict entitled The Storm of Steel, he became aligned with the German conservative revolutionary movement in the interbellum years, and as such advocated a radical, authoritarian, militarist nationalism. Despite this, he never made the fatal gesture Heidegger made, and was never associated with National Socialism; his relationship with Nazism began as coolly ambivalent, progressing into antipathy and finally open hostility (he was even peripherally involved with 20 July Plot to assassinate Hitler). This being said, his contribution to political theory outside his initial context was, essentially, minimal. However, he was regarded as a figure of great literary stature in post-war Europe. He was a prolific novelist, and his incredibly long lifespan (over a century) gave him an enviable vantage point to comment from: he was a grown man when the German Empire collapsed, he was present during the rise and fall of the Third Reich, and lived to see the reunification of Germany (comfortably outliving the German Democratic Republic). His fans included such contradictory figures as Hitler, Goebbels, Francois Mitterand, Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht. As well as writing, he was also a well-educated botanist and entomologist. He was even one of the very earliest experimenters with LSD. He was a man who embodied the very paradoxes and contradictions of recent European existence.

The Glass Bees is a novel about Captain Richard, a retired cavalryman-turned-tank-inspector. He's been offered an interview for a job working for Zapparoni, a technology magnate who embodies the Zeitgeist of modernity perfectly, and is depicted almost as a synthesis of Walt Disney and Steve Jobs, only infinitely cooler. Zapparoni's company makes the finest automata in the land, but these aren't the clunky mechanoids you might expect, they're rather more like the kind of tech that we have here-and-now. They are modest, ubiquitous, labour saving devices, tiny robots performing a host of domestic and industrial tasks. That isn't the limit to Zapparoni's vision though, he is also a purveyor of cinematic products, his automata bringing characters from myth and legend to all-too convincing life (in other words, animatronics). The vividness of the distractions he produces is, however, somewhat disquieting: 

Children, in particular, were held spellbound [by his films]. Zapparoni had dethroned the old stock figures of the fairy tales...Parents even complained that their children were too preoccupied with him.  

Richard is not a man of his time, arguably like Jünger himself. He harks back to the glory days of warfare and conflict that still felt human, battles fought with flesh and steel, and not simply with mechanisms and calculations. He feels a particular disgust at the kind of dismemberment produced by the technics of modern warfare, remarking that one doesn't find any stories of amputated limbs in the Iliad. That statement in particular becomes eerily prescient of the image of today's soldier wounded by an IED in one of our misadventures in the Middle East, missing an arm or a leg, but still alive: Richard mourns the loss of wars that killed you cleanly. Richard's world is one that has been chaotic and uncertain since his youth, when his country, Asturia, was plunged repeatedly into war, including civil war. He is a man whose principles were formed in a world now lost, and the one he finds himself in does not feel like an improvement.

[My father] had led a quiet life, but at the end he hadn't been too happy either. Lying sick in bed, he said to me: "My boy, I am dying at just the right moment." Saying this, he gave me a sad, worried look. He had certainly foreseen many things.

This is a deeply reactionary novel, and doesn't make for easy reading. Jünger's writing meanders, straying into lengthy digressions into his narrator's memory; his pace is languid, virtually glacial in fact. Although his prose is beautiful, even poetic, it feels incredibly indulgent and is often, frankly, dull. Very little happens as such in the novel, the bulk of it simply being Richard's recollections. And yet, what is curious is how this achingly slow piece of writing is able to convey the sheer speed with which modernity did away with the old world. The narrator, like Jünger, grew up in a world were the horse was still yet to be rendered obsolete by the automobile. 

Jünger's clear concern is that technological progress will injure humanity very, very deeply.

Human perfection and technical perfection are incompatible. If we strive for one, we must sacrifice the other...Technical perfection strives toward the calculable, human perfection toward the incalculable. Perfect mechanisms...evoke both fear and a titanic pride which will be humbled not by insight but only by catastrophe.

What is curious here is that before the Second World War, Jünger advocated Germany's complete embracing of the technological age as the only way it could find victory in the next war. He felt that it was Germany's traditional, aristocratic hierarchy that prevented it from being able to properly mobilise itself in the total way the more levelled, egalitarian societies of the democracies were capable of doing (he discusses this in his work Total Mobilisation), and only by accepting the levelling effects of technological modernity could Germany once again find itself triumphant. Perhaps by the time of writing The Glass Bees Jünger had simply become disenchanted with the fury of warfare.

Elsewhere Richard, and maybe Jünger through him, speaks of the loss of the simple 'joy' of labour, of working the earth, of harvesting crops, of the well-deserved rest at the end of the long day, and how this has been traded in for labour that is certainly easier, and leisure time that is longer, but doesn't carry the same weight of satisfaction. The fear that we have lost much and gained little except damnation in return is the central theme of this book.

Zapparoni himself, in fact, has utilised his vast wealth and power to create a private world at first seemingly devoid of the artefacts that have made his name. He has a residence located within the grounds of his plant (which Bruce Sterling, in his introduction, remarks is not dissimilar to the campus feeling of Silicon Valley) in the form of a converted abbey. Richard explores its private library, finding books on Rosicrucianism and other occult sciences, and is later sent down the path to a cottage that comes close to the very Platonic Form of idyllic country residences. What is curious here is that this retreat from modernity has only been made possible by Zapparoni's very success at the practices and theories that Richard feels have destroyed the simple authenticity of the old world. How might this be read? Perhaps Jünger is suggesting that the only way back into the world that has been lost is to pass through the modern one, presuming we are capable of surviving it, and to use its mechanisms and ingenuity to recreate a new version of the old.

There's a feeling of resignation in this novel. Jünger isn't really calling on us to take up arms against the machines. His constant allusions to astrology suggest that he feels that there was something inevitable to what we now find ourselves in. It is our bad luck to find ourselves in the midst of it, but a way out might be found if we can weather the storm of the new. This being said, Richard repeatedly describes his attitude as 'defeatist'. Perhaps the more subtle suggestion Jünger is making here is that things only became inevitable when we decided we can't stop them.

I'm left feeling torn by this book. I share Jünger's concerns about the insidious nature of these devices we're now surrounded by, and yet the past he (or Richard) is seemingly appealing to is one that is forever out of reach, and if we were to find ourselves in it, it wouldn't be what we wanted. Consider the above statement about how now modern war doesn't kill one cleanly, that we now have the mutilated, dismembered wounded: we can equally well read this as 'Human technical ingenuity is now such that it can protect us, admittedly only limitedly, from the extremities of human malice.'

The question posed by modernity is one that has not yet had a satisfactory answer. Indeed, the question itself has yet to be fully formulated. Jünger's contribution to understanding the condition that we find ourselves in is an important one. If nothing else, he can remind us how incredibly recent all of this still is. Up until only very recently, there were people alive who'd fought in the war of Kings, Kaisers and Tsars, witnessed the rise of all the great and terrible varieties of attempted Utopia the last century produced, saw a human being walk upon the surface of the Moon (an image which disturbed Heidegger no end), and died in the age of Facebook.

It really is anyone's guess where this will all lead.

2016 Reading List Progress

List 1:

1. The Glass Bees by Ernst Jünger
2. Sacred Drift: Essays on the Margins of Islam by Peter Lamborn Wilson
3. Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
4. United States of Paranoia by Jesse Walker
5. Axiomatic by Greg Egan 

Sunday, 3 January 2016

An Experiment in Self-Discipline

I suppose this is something of a new year's resolution. Usually, I jump between different books depending on my mood. Inevitably, this leads to me staring many more books than I ever actually finish. I don't think there's anything wrong with not finishing a book in and of itself: life's too short to spend it reading uninteresting books. However, abandoning a book simply out of laziness is no excuse. As such, I'm going to try something.

I'm going to set myself short reading lists this year. Each list will consist of five books, alternating between fiction and nonfiction. After the final book on a list has been completed, and new one is drawn up. This might be designed to build on something I found especially interesting in my last list, or it may take me in a whole new direction. I'm also going to try and review what I've read, if I feel up to the task (I never wrote a review of Houellebecq's novel Submission simply because I didn't think I could do it credit).

I will post the lists on here. I'm also open to suggestions about what to include, though I am trying to get through the private library I've accumulated over the years, so if I don't already have a copy of the suggestion, I'll have to think carefully about its inclusion. I will also write a general assessment after finishing the last book on each list. I reserve the right to abandon a book in favour of another one if it proves especially tedious.

List 1:
1. The Glass Bees by Ernst Jünger
2. Sacred Drift: Essays on the Margins of Islam by Peter Lamborn Wilson
3. Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
4. United States of Paranoia by Jesse Walker
5. Axiomatic by Greg Egan