Review:Confucius and the World He Made by Michael Schuman (Basic Books, 2015)

Schuman assigns himself a difficult task, dissecting and sharing the extremely nebulous world of Confucianism in East Asia and the shape it has taken in China, Korea, Singapore, Japan, and Taiwan.  Schuman’s writing for the Wall Street Journal and Time aid him in developing a breezy journalistic style, his marriage into a Korean family give him both an insider and outsider perspective, and his willingness to do the research is laudable.  Beyond that, Schumann doesn’t just start with the Analects, but really does try to get into the history of Confucius himself, the history of Qafu, and the strange flexibility of Confucian doctrine.

Schuman gets into the difficulties of dealing with Confucius admittedly:  Confucius is a mythic figure and reformer already writing about a past that was mythic to Confucius himself. The layers of mystification are deep. Furthermore, Confucius and Confucianism comes off at first like a Sinological equal to a Hellenic philosophical school, and like Platonism, religious ideas accumulated in vaguely metaphysical notions prior.  It’s also important that early Confucianism was relevant on the study of classics existing prior to Confucius himself.

This flexibility in Confucianism makes it hard to pin down and hard to talk about consistently.  Confucianism has both democratic and anti-Democratic tendencies, both humane and inhumane elements, but has always been dependent on Imperial patronage.   Schuman’s history is interesting and in-depth, showing the development of different elements of Confucianism changing in response to legalism, Daoism, Buddhism, and even Christianity.  Neo-Confucianism role in many patriarchal imperial cults becomes clear but so does its deviation from classical Confucianism.  Schuman even hints at, but doesn’t go into, the idea that elements of Confucianism as we understand it were promoted by European missionaries.

Schuman’s writings on Confucianism in modern world, and its relationship to 20th century critics is more problematic. Schumann admires Confucius and East Asian culture, but as his last chapter reveals, is actually quite critical of the way it is being used by various governments in East Asia as a means of gas-lighting public order and painting more participatory ideas from democratic societies as Western, foreign, and corrupt. To combat this, however, Schumann often sounds like he is making excuses for Confucian excesses. In other words, Schumann knows his bias but out of respect for his topic, over corrects on the side of apologetics.

I found this book informative, readable, but very frustrating as it almost certainly will make no one completely happy. It isn’t an explication of the Analects. It’s not just a historical discussion of the development of Confucianism, and it is both critical of and apologetic for East Asian society. Schuman has difficulty dealing with post-Deng embrace of Confucius after the excesses of the cultural revolution or the criticism of Singapore’s ruler, Yew, to actually have Confucianism take off in Singapore.

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Book Review The Reckless Mind by Mark Lilla (NYRB Press, re-issue 2015)

Originally released a few days before September 11, 2001, Mark Lilla’s
The Reckless Mind was re-released by NYRB roughly corresponding with
his new book of essays on reactionary political thinking, The
Shipwrecked Mind.   In the intervening years, these essays feel both
more and less relevant: Foucault has lasted, but the problems of his
politics have been explored more completely by the left and the right.
Revelations about Heidegger have been made deeper and more notedly
“problematic” with the translation of the black notebooks. Derrida,
the only living figure in the book when it was released, has passed
and his relevance to critical theory waned incredibly quickly.  Yet
the essays in this collection on Heidegger, Carl Schmitt, Walter
Benjamin, Kojève, Foucault, and Derrida are still readable and
fascinating.

There are, however, some puzzling indictments in this book. Lilla’s
essay on the relationship between Karl Jaspers, Hannah Arendt, and
Heidegger is clear-eyed in its assignment of Heidegger’s politics, but
Heidegger is not the intellectual about the which the essay concerns
itself.  Are Jaspers and Arendt also guilty of political recklessness?
Lilla, despite the very clear-eyed focus of the essay, does not say.
Walter Benjamin’s exact offense seems unknown as if Lilla thinks that
flirting with Marxism was in and of itself reckless even when
distancing from Soviet and Maoist forms.  Is it that Benjamin was
reckless in his combining messianism and recursion to Frankfurt
Marxism?   It hardly had political effect and Benjamin never made
apologetics for regimes in the way that Schmitt, Heidegger or Foucault
had done.    Furthermore, while some of the digs at Derrida are
apt—particularly Derrida’s highly symbolic and affective reading of
Marx—again it is hard to see what the consequences are to these
politics.  Derrida’s deconstruction seems muddled, but not reckless.
It is, now, however, largely irrelevant.

Again one suspects notices that these were essays for Times Literary
Supplement and the New York Review of books, and are excellent
profiles, but the essays connecting the key figures do not
thematically relate the figures enough.  Lilla’s final essay about
Syracuse and the nature of tyrannical philosophers is excellent, but
he does not really lay out priorly exactly what was tyrannical about
Benjamin.  HIs treatment of Kojeve was interesting and clarifying, but
the exact nature of the Strauss and Kojeve exchanges needed more
development as well. Furthermore, Kojeve’s correspondence has been
collected in On Authority giving a more complete view of the
exchange than when only Strauss’s On Tyranny was translated.

In short, this is an insightful but highly frustrating book.  Lilla
seems more annoyed with the left than the right, even if he thinks the
right’s sins are greater. He does not make the digs at Schmitt or even
Heidegger that he does Foucault and Derrida.  Lilla’s thematic unity
is merely interest in alternative and possibly totalitarian
worldviews, but any more coherent and cogent theme is resisted beyond
that.

Review The Shipwrecked Mind by Mark Lilla (NYRB Press, 2016)

While some will read this as a ‘history of reaction,’ this insightful and easily digested volume of essays is more like several essays on the subject. Generally, following a format related to book views and discussions in the history of ideas, collected around the central theme. I was little surprised to find that Lilla had published most of the chapters in New York Review of Books. While this is a limiting factor to the book, it does not make it un-insightful or particularly dross, or even repetitive as like some similar books. In fact, the obvious comparison is to Corey Robins The Reactionary Mind, which while also being largely a series of essays as review, had a more coherent thesis but was far more repetitive in its assertion and conflated conservatism with reactionarism. Still as Lilla points out, the reactionary impulse may be more dominant in political thinking these days even on the left, but far more ink as been spilt on the revolution mind. Indeed, even I can only think of Berlin and Robins as clear precursors to Lilla’s focus here.

Lilla starts with an assertion going back to DeMaistre, the reactionary is NOT a conservative. The reactionary is a utopian of nostalgia as opposed to the utopian of progress. While this is not actually the clearest of definitions, Lilla is able to use it trace a variety of kinds of thought which rhyme in function and affect. Lilla starts the book with careful and highly sympathetic studies of Rosenzweig, Voegelin, and Leo Strauss. Indeed, in the case of the latter two men, Lilla goes to pains to disentangle them from the use of their work. Lilla, like Isaiah Berlin who influenced him, can’t help but admire something of the vitality of counter-Enlightenment thought and may almost be too sympathetic to his case studies for many of his political allies. He is far fairer to Voegelin and Strauss than to Alain Badiou in the later chapters.

It is the series of essay in the second half of the book that are both the interesting but also the most frustrating. Lilla seems limited by the magazine form that chapters were originally published in, but almost all the arguments need to linger. Lilla’s thesis on the reactionary impulse to the “road not taken”–generally in some relationship to the Enlightenment although sometimes against the entirety of post-Socratic European history–is fascinating and seems apt, but he does not fully develop it.

Lilla’s assertion that “epochal thinking is magical thinking” is fascinating and feels true, but he doesn’t give enough examples nor does he explicitly call back the three case study thinkers in the beginning of the book which could be used to justify the claim. Lilla is erudite, and more or less expects his reader to be as well. Yet book that makes fairly strong demands on readers, its magazine style does have the benefit of being immediately accessible in style and a joy to read. This is particularly true in the essay on Michel Houellebecq and the two opposed currents of reactionary thinking in France. Indeed, Lilla does not explore this enough, but often the reactionary impulses biggest enemy is based in a different reactionary impulse with an opposing nostalgia. Lilla is a subtle thinker and a strong writer, but one wishes he developed his thinking beyond collecting his reviews on the topic and writing some thematic essays to tie them together.

Despite these caveats, I strongly recommend the The Shipwrecked Mind.

Lenin: Criticals Lives by Lars Lih, (Reaktion Books 2012)

Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered: What Is To Be Done? in Context (Haymarket Books 2008) is known for contextualizing and detailing the meaning of What Is To Be Done? in long term context.  Lin is also contextualizing Lenin here, in terms of his relationship to Kautsky, his development of a heroic theory of revolution, and the exact nature of the party.  In such a brief book, this remains largely a intellectual biography that takes a thematic birds eye view into the meaning of Lenin’s ideas and the origins of his motivations.

While this is a polemical text, Lih seems to want to critical but largely supportive view of Lenin, particularly his relationship to Karl Kautsky, particularly prior to 1914, and the effects of the fall out in the context of the Russian civil war could have led to some political mistakes, but Leninism  as such was not created by Lenin explicitly.  Lih is aiming at a balance between a apologia and an contextualization, both cutting against right-wing historiography on Lenin and left currents use of Lenin as a cipher for centralization and destructive revolutionary impulses. Lih is critical of Lenin, particularly Lenin’s inability to completely deal with actual development of peasants, particularly after the civil war.

Lih does a good job of pointing out that Lenin was not a simple dictator or professional conspirator. Lih argues, convincingly, that Lenin actually formed the base of his ideology relatively early in his career, that the relationship of the proletariat to the narod (the People) was paramount in Lenin’s various “heroic class leadership scenarios.” He also points out that development for peasants and their relationship to the proletariat was key to him thought.  Lih argues somewhat convincing that Lenin believed in basic democratization and relative freedom, only suspending in the civil wars that occurred later and he was frustrated with the inability to continue democratization after the primary civil wars were over.

Much of the book is devoted to sketching out Lenin’s relationship to the Kautsky, the revolution of 1905, and the first world war as crucial to the thoughts of Lenin’s early life.  Lih also effectively demonstrates that most of Lenin’s heroic narrative was based in Marx or Engels or Kautsky’s expansion of the two. This undoes a lot of the interpretations by from Adam Ulam to Robert Service that Lenin’s “vanguardism” as totally a response to the failure of classical Marxism and was a totally cynical poly.

There are a few weaknesses in the book: Lenin’s break with Plekhanov is not covered in significant detail although it would be crucial to his development nor Lenin’s use of conspiratorial means to sure up party finances in caucuses (which helped propel Stalin to importance), and the exactly failure of Lenin to figure out how to predict the role of the peasants after the revolution going from phase to phase.  Furthermore, there is the mild implication that Lenin not fully regained his bearings after the break with Kautsky and trying to forge head with a different set of principles.  This latter bit isn’t so much a problem, but does seem to be a interpretative heuristic that one should be aware.

Overall, this is an excellent, if brief, corrective to a lot of the historiography and psychologization of Bolshevik development and of Lenin’s ideological commitments.  Clearly organized, brief, and interesting, one interested in the Russian revolution or the history of Marxism should deal with this book.

Review: Theory as History by Jarius Banaji (Brill, 2011)

While I do not always agree with Banaji, particularly of his dismissal of the English agrarian capital thesis and the Brenner/Woods reading as an “orthodoxy,” his discussions of Egypt, the late medieval Islamic trade development, the problems with the “Asiatic modes of production” and “tributary mode of production” as well as historical blind spots in general Marxist, and, ironically given their third world focus, specifically Maoist misreadings of past. Banaji’s strength is his knowledge of periods before capitalism and the complications of “transitions,” and he is particularly convincing in contrasting Mexico with Egypt in the 19th and 20th centuries. I do think, however, that Banaji focuses intensely on moods of production but is deliberately somewhat loose with what counts as capitalism outright, and his criterion seemed a little vaguer than that of Woods/Brenner.

Parts of this book seem clearly targeted at the Maoist argument that “survivals of pre-capitalist relations of production” mean that the prime revolutionary class is the peasantry against the assertions of earlier Stalinists and other forms of communism about the working class. Banaji, as Mike MacNair already has said in his review of the book, “argues that the whole ‘traditional Marxist’ scheme of differences between modes of production which are defined by the mode of exploitation – slavery in classical antiquity, serfdom under feudalism, wage labour under capitalism – is to be rejected.” Banaji does this because there are proto-capitalist elements and profound misunderstanding of Asian and late antique economies in most Marxist schemas, and that the schema is both too theoretically simple. This argument is the thread that keeps these otherwise unrelated scholarly essays together. I also think that Banaji’s looser definition of capitalism frustrates all kinds of other Marxists particularly when looking at over-generalizations in other modes of production.

Interestingly, while there is no “pure” agrarian capitalism according to Banaji, he does prove that there was significant wage labor in both pre-modern and third world agriculture earlier than most Marxists conceive. This is significant as it draws out the horizon of the origins out beyond England. However, where I disagree with Banaji is that wage-relationships and focus on reinvestment did NOT characterize Mediterranean interface of Catholic Christendom, Byzantium and the Dar al-Islam. Banaji does prove that Brenner/Woods may have been under-stating the development of elements of capital, but he his only focusing on one part of Brenner/Woods two part definition. That said, this does complicate the development of capitalism quite clearly.

Furthermore, Banaji seems to reject teleologies as such. He seems to conflate the ideas that = that capital developmental would have a purposive and long-run developments that were emergent from their own logic, and would have a systemic teleological pattern to the idea of a teleology of history itself. To my mind, this is reading Hegelian and German idealist assumptions about what a teleology is back into the entirety of history. This means that Banaji seems to reject a clear emergence point for capitalism and a developmental logic, partly because of Marx’s “Here be Dragons” elements of Asiatic production.

This is not to dismiss Banaji. This is an important book, and while not necessarily easy for lay-readers in either medieval economic history or inter-Marxist debates, it is a vital read. It also calls for Marxists to look at non-European societies and do more significant comparative work before making big claims about history. The strongest chapters are the ones dealing with conceptions of “free” and “unfree” labor in the modern political economy as well as ones critiquing a lack of historiography in Marxist circles around antiquity and around non-European developmental modes.

Review: Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sheep by Seo-Young Cha (Harvard U. Press, 2011)

In another life, I worked at Korean University and was studying/writing on the works of the Theresa Hak Kyung Cha in as close detail as I could, and I went to a conference on narratology to speak on Cha. While I was there, I expressed interest in critical narrative theory as applied to poetry, science fiction, and comic books. Someone suggested this book because it spoke to both Cha, Korean cultural studies, and an expanded view of works of science fiction. Now, Cha’s Dictee is not science fiction by any conventional standard, but Chu includes it because of its metaphorical richness and speculative social commentary. Chu’s focus on science fiction as both a lyric and narrative mode of interrogating the social space fascinated me and not only led me to abandoning my arguments about Cha scholarship, which often was somewhat sloppily used in semi-nationalistic readings of Korean identity in the American. In short, this book’s argument about Cha was highly disruptive to my thinking, and even changed my poetic approach to my creative work.

In the last few weeks, I have been re-reading this book in addition to reading some more popular “scholarship” on comics. While do not necessarily agree with the hyper-broad definition Chu assigns “science fiction” (which is largely divorced from the sciences in Chu’s view, an argument that seems to only really be viable after the 1960s), her expansion of the role of science fiction as using metaphor as lyric imaginary is incredibly insightful. Chu’s primary assertion that the metaphorical and strange deliberately conflates and collapses the wall between the literal and figurative in most science fiction offers a very fruitful way to approach a lot of pop culture, but particularly New Wave Science Fiction and Slipstream fiction.

To say that “Chu explores the globalized world, cyberspace, war trauma, the Korean concept of han, and the rights of robots” as the press release around the book announces is actually somewhat of an understatement. Han, for example, doesn’t quite translate into English but can felt in Korean cinema’s obsession with vague past guilt and revenge as well as haunting itself with its own cultural memory. This does lend many Korean films a very “speculative” quality that does collapse the narrative/lyric distinction. Chu gives the fictional interrogations of science fiction more than a speculative turn: they do refer to reality for Chu, but tries to voice alienation and estrangement from the very reality it is trying to represent. It also does more blatant philosophical work, but Chu does convince me that poetics of M. John Harrison or J.G. Ballard or the speculative paranoia of Philip K. Dick or the ethnical explorations of Ursula K. LeQuin do belong in nearly same category as Cha or Kathy Acker or any other explorers of self-estrangement in more “literary” or “counter-cultural” work.

One of the most fascinating and important assertions of this book though is that allegory is the least “science fictional” element to most science fiction. In fact, it is where the collapsing of figurative and literal does not work as well and shifts into the purely figurative. This would mean that much “dystopia” and “utopia” as literature do not actually play in the realm of science fiction explicitly. This is most clearly stated in her chapter five on rights of robots, where she makes clear that the memetic element of science fiction is vital even to the genre’s ethical experimentations.

This is an under-read book outside of a very specific subset of literary studies where it has had some real pull. Chu is a first-rate scholar and does reverse expected reading and interpretative strategies often, but she does it without bogging one down in a lot of technical literary jargon and requires only minimal prior engagement with the theoretical apparatuses that inform her work. Meaning that while this book is related to the academic monograph, it does not read like one. One does not have to be a scholar to approach Chu’s argument. All one need to be is a serious reader.

Review: The Anatomy of Zur-en-Arrh by Cody Walker (Sequart 2014)

Rarely do I get to say that something is insightful while also in bad need of an editor and much of which is superfluous. Cody Walker is probably one of the best close readers of Grant Morrison’s comics and what he has done here is a 250+ apologia and analysis of Morrison’s run on Batman. Furthermore, Morrison’s run was long, dense, meta-textual, controversial, and–while I doubt Walker would see it this way–uneven, so this would be an interesting undertaking. Walker is a teacher, and it shows in both the virtues and flaws of The Anatomy of Zur-en-Arrh. The explorations and explications of theme are, while not exactly scholarly or critical in an academic sense, insightful and show evidence of deep (and scholarly) engagement with material of Morrison and of treating popular culture as literature.

So here’s the problem: this book suffers from this teacherly trait in a way that undermines a lot of its readability. There are far, far too many summaries of every issue and arc Grant Morrison ever touched on Batman, and little discussion of how this really related to other Batman writers and other works by Grant Morrison. While Walker’s exegesis is strong, the pages upon pages of summaries are unnecessary for those who would be interested enough to read a defense of Morrison, but give too much away for those unfamiliar with the work. This kind of explication with intensive summary is often a teaching tool in a literature class–where one cannot assume everyone has read the work–but an editor should have cut at least fifty pages of this out. Walker’s style is reading and personable, but the summaries slow this way, way down.

Furthermore, comparing the differences in say Morrison’s work on Animal Man–which has the same deconstructive tendencies with Morrison would later take issue with his bete noir, fellow chaos magician Alan Moore–and his later Batman work would be really illuminating. It would also be interesting to compare Frank Miller’s or Jeph Loeb’s Batman to Morrison’s reconstructive work explicitly. Normally, I think it is unfair to critique an author for writing a different book than what one wants, but in this case, it really would help. Walker’s brief discussions the contrast between Moore and Morrison is insightful and so I know Walker could do this.

Lastly, while this is an excellent apologia for later Morrison’s deconstruction of capitalism around comics and his attempt to re-introduce archetype, camp, and de-humanizing artifice into comics from a philosophical point of view, Walker isn’t critical of where this doesn’t work unless the fault isn’t with Morrison. Walker’s discussion about how the conflicts between marketing, the New 52, and Batman, Inc, really undercut some of Morrison’s better writing at the end of his last run on Batman is actually one of the best part of the books, but one often feels like Walker is reading Morrison a bit too “occultly” to justify seeming incoherence and searching for hints to make things fit better than they do. Even good apologias need to be critical of their subject matter sometimes.

Ultimately, this makes for an very uneven read itself (perhaps this is ironic given Morrison’s Batman run). Devotees of either Batman or Morrison will skim a lot of this book because the summaries aren’t necessary to them, and the neophyte will be utterly lost. This is a shame because, like I have said, Walker is a strong reader with a penetrating mind and a good eye for detail as well as a pleasant and enjoyable writer. I suggest this book only with those caveats strongly in mind.