Review: The Origins of Capital: A Longer View by Ellen Meiksins Wood (Verso, Reprint 2002)

Wood recent death and my own interests in longer view of capitalism strangely overlapped and I revisited this gem of historiography. Wood and Brenner have been key in getting me to re-think some over-generalizations about capitalist teleology assumed in both liberal and Marxist circles. Many Marxists after Marx have made the same assumptions as liberals about the natural development of capitalism out of feudalism as if it were an innate process of development to economics. Wood not only contested this view, but her synthesis of Brenner with E.P. Thompson explains many otherwise hard to explain traits of capitalism: Why was capitalism so much more tied to England and England’s settler colonies than to Spain or to the various early modern European merchant states like the Italian city states or the Dutch Republic, why did France require a bourgeois revolution whereas England had a religious revolution, why do Locke’s myths about property origins seem so crucial to capitalist thinkers?

This book is divided into three sections. The first is an excellent overview of the various models for the origins of capitalism including most of the figures around the various liberal models, the world-systems quasi-Marxist answers, and the key figures on the transition debate (Paul Sweezy, Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, Georges Lefebvre, and Kohachiro Takahashi) as well as the Brenner Debates on Agrarian capitalism. While knowledge of these debates that happened between late 1950s and late 1990s does help, Wood presents them clearly and without assuming much prior knowledge. Through these debates, one can see that part of the issue is that the definition of capitalist pre-conditions isn’t settled. Is capitalism the existence of a market or the social compulsion for the market to dominate? If it is the former, then capitalism does seem natural as markets between societies for certain goods have existed in almost all societies. If it is the latter, then such systems as early modern French absolutism or the merchant systems that liberals often call mercantilism are not actually capitalism.

The second section book more clearly lays out this option while Wood acknowledges her intellectual dependence on E.P. Thompson and Robert Brenner more clearly. This section discusses how specific political arrangements after the Tudor period led to English aristocracy being dependent on value from land-holdings on the market instead of pure taxation from extra-economic forces to increase their wealth. This agrarian model creates the pre-conditions for the industrial model but did not exist elsewhere in Europe nor really even outside of England until colonialism pushed it out in search of my growth. Woods focuses on the fact that most of Europe, even colonial states like Spain, put its surplus into the military or into the use value of aristocrats, whereas the legal structures of England required re-investment and improvement to be profitable. This was power was more centralized in the hands of land-owners in the English civil war (revolution), and even after the monarchy was restored, this power was not lost. Woods also goes into why the Dutch and Italian merchant states did not give up extra-economics means of enrichment and thus didn’t develop the same culture or reinvestment. Then Woods convincing shows John Locke laying out a argument and a myth that naturalized these English developments after the English Civil War.

Admittedly, one can become slightly frustrated with Wood here. Here argument is sound, but she does not show specific instances. While she does do this in other books, one gets the feeling that this is only to lay out the logic and the minimal of empirical evidence for her position on the debates but not necessarily go deeply into the empirical historical case. Some people may be frustrated by this tendency, but she does go into these details in other works.

In the third section, Wood talks about the relationship to Enlightenment and Modernity. Wood uses Weber’s arguments about the collapsing of various kinds rationality into instrumental rationality, but unlike someone like Horkheimer or Adorno, does not assume this was the only direct of Enlightenment thinking. If French absolutism were more sustainable, a different model may have been developed. In this sense, Wood seems to argue against critics like Adorno or Frederic Jameson that only one modernity was possible. This also opens her to be combined with theorists who don’t necessarily agree with her on the origins of capitalism when talking about capitalist development outside of Europe. For example, Jairus Banaji’s critique of overly simplistic schemas being read unto the development of capitalism in Asia can work with Wood even though the two thinkers disagree on the origins of capitalism. This third section, however, does seem to be less historiographical and more into taxonomic debates in popular left philosophy and thus seems slightly out if place in the book.

While I regard this book as excellent, it does leave a few areas unexplored. What exactly was primitive accumulation needed for it? Were the enclosures a form of primitive accumulation or something else? How crucial was the Protestant reformation for the differences in aristocratic privilege to have developed in England but not France? The timing seems to indicate that it was crucial but the direct relationship is never discussed even though it seems the breaking of church property tithe systems were just as vital as enclosures to making property the key vision of liberty in England and English speaking colonies? Another question, how crucial was US chattel slavery and what was it relationship to agrarian capitalism? Wood does mention that there is a relationship but doesn’t go very deeply into it. She explains, for example, that US slavery and primitive accumulation accelerated capitalism because of its reliance on the English model whereas the Spanish model did not even though it accumulated and enslaved as much. However, she doesn’t go into specifics here in how the developments were related.

These caveats aside, however, this book is particularly helpful at getting a grip on global capitalism origins and why it seems so related to Anglo-culture in specific and to Western Europe in general without completely Eurocentric exceptionalism being involved. It is clear and readable and presents a complicated but convinced argument.

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.

Review: League of Regrettable Superheroes by Jon Morris (Quirk Press, 2015)

Morris’s “League of Regrettable Superheroes” is exploration of the flukes of the superhero genre, and this breaks things down into the nice explorations of vices and would-bes of the various comic book ages. Since the book focuses primarily on the super-heros with brief shelf-lives, you don’t need to dig down into massive mythologies or character inconsistencies or revisions of character history or alternate universes. Or, not as much as in more standard and long-running superhero fair.

Each character has, at least, a two page spread. A cover or panel is given as well as brief bio. Morris is not laugh at loud funny, but he is humorous without being snarky or pedantic. In the spirit of early comic books, there are few cute puns. The current break down is the Golden Age with 44 heroes; The Silver Age with 26 heroes; and The Modern Age with 30 heroes. The Golden Age has similar themes from comics publishers run amok, and the discussion actually gives you a insight into the early history of comics. The collapse of the “Bronze Age” and the “1980s-early 2000s” is probably a thematic mistake: the “Edgy” “adult” (teen vision of adult prurience and violence) and the bronze age attempt at more psychologically realistic and socially conscious heroes are actually quite different in their vices.

One of the interesting things discussed in subtext of Morris’ book is that not only are some of the more interesting superheroes more or less flops, but that superhero comics often go out of favor. For example, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Morris mentions that superheroes were often in serial movies in theaters, but that superhero comics declined in popularity very quickly thereafter. Conversely, the early 1990s were an unusual prolix and profitable time for comics, but it collapsed out from under the industry and basically only related properties keep the current industry afloat. Indeed, we live in an age where superhero comic properties dominate the movies and popular culture, but superhero comic books are on the wane. This is something Morris does not discuss directly but hints at in his erudition about the medium.

The book is beautiful and well-laid out, the heroes range from hilarious to the vices of their age, and Morris shows his power as a subtle writer of pop culture and an academic of comics. In age of Geek and nerd dominance, this a refreshing reminder of its silliness.