Year of Reading in Review (2021)

booksread2021Over the course of the last year I’ve been updating a twitter thread with the books that I’ve read, including short comments detailing my thoughts or attempting to summarise the text (you can find the beginning of the thread here). The resulting thread, with all of 65 individual posts, is an absolute pain to navigate on twitter, so in what feels like a fit of narcissism I have compiled, organised, and refined those comments here. For the sake of identifying connective threads and ongoing areas of interest, I have sorted the entries into broad topics, but have attempted to keep these topics and their constituent books in a mostly chronological order.

For background, I started 2021 in a state of post-thesis confusion, having spent the previous six years in orbit of my thesis topic, and the bulk of 2019 and 2020 more immediately concerned with finishing the writing of my thesis. With no project at hand, my reading for the first half of the year mostly bounced between interests which I had not been able to fully explore while in the depths of my doctorate—precipitating around an interest in the theory of history, which would lead through Benjamin, Marxist theory, a return to the Gothic, and eventually on to a closer study of Hegel.

The Philosophy:

My first book of the year was Spinoza’s joyous anatomy of nature, The Ethics, which was accompanied by Gilles Deleuze’s helpful little guide, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy. This latter work tends toward hagiography in its treatment of Spinoza’s life, but does so in the service of emphasising the import of Spinoza’s work beyond mere philosophy. In January, I also finished off Walter Benjamin’s explorations of the subterranean zones of history in The Arcades Project (a re-read) and his collected Correspondence, both of which I had begun after submitting my thesis in October of the previous year. These were followed by the first volume of Benjamin’s Selected Writings (1913-1926), which collects many of the early notes and essay fragments that would provide the core formulations and preoccupations of his later work. Additionally, I read Fredric Jameson’s Benjamin Files, which attempts a break from Benjamin’s contemporary reputation as a politically confused cultural critic. Jameson’s account gives a solid overview of Benjamin’s entire body of work, with a refreshing focus on his purposeful, experimental use of form and style.

Aside from Spinoza and Benjamin, I finally got around to some general works of philosophy which I had long wanted to read. The first of these was Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, which I read to get a better sense of the context of Benjamin’s messianism. Scholem’s is one of those rare books which delves into the esoteric without becoming mystified itself. Less enlightening was my encounter with the Enneads of Plotinus. I’ll admit I don’t know shit about Platonism beyond the basics, so large parts of this work were lost on me. Nevertheless, the discussions of time, eternity, matter, and mind will be returned to at some point in the future. I picked up both volumes of Taylor Adkin’s much-awaited translation of Gilbert Simondon’s Individuation in Light of Notions of Form and Information, starting with the supplementary materials of the second volume. The history of the concept of the individual which makes up most of the second volume is very useful for contextualising Simondon’s project in the first volume, where he re-thinks the individual from the perspective of the process of individuation and the pre-individual milieu. Also on the theme of ontogenesis is Goethe’s essay on the Metamorphosis of Plants, which traces the life of plants back to the primal singularity of the leaf—and follows the leaf as it proliferates and contorts into an infinite variety of forms. The latest re-print of this from MIT Press is a very cute edition, with plenty of photographs to illustrate Goethe’s text.

The Theory:

On the other hand, I tried to balance these philosophical texts with works of Marxist theory, starting with the first four volumes of the Endnotes journal. Endnotes 1 gives a decent overview of French communist theory debates (a bountiful niche) in respect to “communisation.” The Dauve essays are interesting enough, but Théorie Communiste come off far more forceful in their ruthless replies. Things begin to pick up in Endnotes 2, especially in the technical discussions of surplus population and subsumption that handily rejig Marx’s system for the long recession. Endnotes 3 is less purely theoretical than the previous volumes, with an urgent focus on the situation of the early 2010s (i.e. Arab Spring, Occupy, London Riots). That being said, the essays on the capitalist composition of gender and race are welcome refinements of the theory of class developed thus far. In the same vein, the interminable contestation of theory is pushed aside in Endnotes 4 for more urgent matters; in this case, making sense of the Ferguson uprising. The massive essay on the history of the workers’ movement is probably the closest thing to an Endnotes manifesto, and good reason for the fourth volume’s reputation as the best of the lot.

My reading of Marxist theory continued with Stavros Tombazos’s Time in Marx, which is an ambitious reconstruction of all three volumes of Capital according to their respective categories of time. Conceptually dense and immensely detailed, Tombazos’s work presents a compelling argument for the necessity of dialectical thought in thinking capital. I worked through Daniel Lopez’s monumental Lukács: Praxis and the Absolute; an immense reconstruction of Lukács’s early philosophy of history and praxis, and a welcome critical evaluation of its limits—dragging him out of the dustbin of the twentieth century to give him the hearing he deserves. Following on from the previous year’s reading of The Wretched of the Earth, I finally got around to reading Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks, which cuts to the heart of colonial (and colonising) psychology and locates the means by which dehumanisation and alienation are embedded in the being of colonised people. Fanon’s discussion of the abortive dialectic of master and slave that develops under the conditions of colonialism would also lead into my turn to Hegel a couple months later (more on that in a moment). In preparation for reading Fanon I also read Aime Cesare’s Discourse on Colonialism, a short work on the hypocrisies of Europe and the dual dehumanisations of colonialism, which degrades both the colonised and colonisers themselves.

The Miscellany:

Beyond theory, I made time to read works of Marxist history. Starting over the New Years’ break, I read E.P. Thompson’s meticulous and sharp The Making of the English Working Class, which covers the history of the formation of working-class consciousness from the 1790s to the 1830s, and the intellectual and political currents which went into its making. This was followed by Christopher Hill’s economic and social history of English modernity, Reformation to Industrial Revolution. Of especially interest is the middle third of the book, devoted to the pivotal decades of the Civil War, Commonwealth, and Restoration, an era about which Hill is unparalleled as an historian. My reading of Arno Mayer’s two-part account of Europe’s “second Thirty Years War” and general crisis of the twentieth century began with The Persistence of the Old Regime, an excellent history of the conservative and reactionary forces which led Europe into the world wars, situated as they were within the wider context of the continuation of pre-modern governance and economies well into the period of modernity. This was followed by Why Did the Heavens Not Darken?, which contextualises the Holocaust within Germany’s anti-communist crusade and the ensuing disintegration of Europe’s archaic political and economic order.

My reading of literary theory was comparatively slim this year, being limited to one classic and one new release. I picked up Pierre Macherey’s Theory of Literary Production to round out my understanding of Marxist literary theory, and found the opening theoretical discussion especially interesting, with its emphasis on the unspoken elements of a given text. As part of a class I taught this year, I read Tom Ford’s How to Read a Poem: Seven Steps, which is a strong, intermediate guide to literary criticism in practice. On the surface it appears part of the ongoing close reading renaissance, but its final chapter gives the game away: a smuggling of Sartre and the method of totalisation into the myopic landscape of contemporary lit theory. I’d easily recommend this one to anyone teaching or studying poetry, or looking to improve their hermeneutic skills in general.

Compared to last year, my reading of ecological theory was also fairly limited, and mostly prompted by commitments to various reading groups. Andreas Malm’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline has a misleading title, but Why Direct Action is a Good Idea Sometimes wouldn’t turn so many heads. It has copped some deserving flak for its brevity and narrow scope, but it’s still a mostly compelling polemic against the inert pacifism of Extinction Rebellion and company, in favour of a diversity of green tactics. Neil Smith’s Uneven Development is a neat primer on Marxist geography, with all the successes and pitfalls typical of that school. Smith’s “production of nature” is a useful concept, although my suspicion is that it is now somewhat superseded by the more complex (and properly dialectical?) accounts of later eco-Marxists such as Foster, Burkett, and Saito.

The Gothic:

In July I gave a ten-hour lecture series for the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy, entitled “Subterranean Passages: The Gothic and Philosophy.” This course examined the Gothic figures and narratives deployed by philosophers from Kant, Hegel, and Schopenhauer to Nietzsche and Deleuze to communicate the unspeakable and map the limits of the self. The key reference throughout these lectures was Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s game-changing account of the Gothic genre, The Coherence of Gothic Conventions, which provides a comprehensive structural analysis of Gothic form as a play of insides, outsides, and the ban against their contact with one another. Anne Williams’s psychoanalytic and ideological account of the Gothic in Art of Darkness was also a constant reference-point for making sense of the limits imposed upon thought and speech in philosophical discourse. In preparation for the lectures, I also re-read Gilles Deleuze’s Kant’s Critical Philosophy, a miraculously simple read, given the notorious obscurity of both its author and subject; Pierre Klossowski’s Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle, which is best read like a horror novel, in which a reclusive man finds himself in contact with alien agencies, at war with his own body and mind, and in the tumult begins a dark project to destroy the world; and Mark Fisher’s The Weird and the Eerie, which remains an excellent account of the unsung aesthetic categories of the Gothic, alongside their famous cousins the sublime and the uncanny.

The Hegel:

After spending the first half of the year without a long-term project, and having encountered a need to make sense of Hegel in both my readings of Marxist theory and in preparation for my lectures, I figured it was high time to properly read The Phenomenology of Spirit. In the end, I read it twice, in both the Miller and Pinkard translations. I found Miller a smoother read—although I did read him second—provided that I remained aware of his quirks (i.e. the spurious capitalisations and the translation of begriff as “Notion”). From what I can tell, Pinkard is strictly more accurate, and about as close as one can get to reading the original without picking it up in German, but for this reason his sentence structure can get quite thorny. He’ll be my reference for close reading, but I’ll likely return to Miller for quick references. I also re-read the Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit in Yirmiyahu Yovel’s accessible translation, accompanied by his detailed annotations on Hegel’s text and references. This is a great place to start for anyone new to Hegel—although my one gripe with Yovel’s book is the lack of paragraph numbers for cross-reference with other translations.

My first read of the Phenomenology was accompanied by a couple of commentaries on the text. The foremost of these was Jean Hyppolite’s Genesis and Structure of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, a chapter-by-chapter commentary that emphasises the relation of the Phenomenology to the Logic, the concepts and categories of which appear in piecemeal form throughout the narrative of Spirit’s development. Terry Pinkard’s Sociality of Reason was also of some use for entering the Phenomenology, as it reconstructs Hegel’s project as a historical narrative of bildung. Pinkard perhaps makes Hegel’s work neater than it really is, by tying each section to historically determinate and chronologically ordered examples, but his book is nevertheless a compelling attempt to communicate the socio-historical vision of Hegel’s work. Alexandre Kojeve’s Introduction to the Reading of Hegel is a still more spurious account of Hegel’s project, and a still more delightfully galaxy-brained reading of history, reality, work, and humanity in the Phenomenology. Robert Pippin’s Hegel on Self-Consciousness is a short glimpse into the bizarro world of analytic Hegelianism, and a decent explication of the first part of the chapter on “Self-Consciousness.” Katrin Pahl’s Tropes of Transport provides an unorthodox reading of the Phenomenology through an affective lens that pushes Hegel’s narrative to its limits through close readings of his language and the structure of his work’s fragmentary, transitory, and retrospective moments.

Alongside these commentaries on the Phenomenology, I read some broader accounts of Hegel’s philosophical system. The first of these was Fredric Jameson’s Valences of the Dialectic, which might well be titled Fredric Jameson’s Greatest Hits, in which he single-handedly brings dialectics and totalisation back in style, writes some standout essays on Deleuze, Lukacs, and Walmart, and finishes off the volume with a humongous essay on history and time. Hegel: Three Studies by Theodor Adorno is another classic piece of scholarship from a writer who is more Hegelesque than Hegelian. The first and third essays of this volume stand out: the one on the continuing relevance of Hegel for a present that believes it has left him behind, and the other on Hegel’s use of language to express that which language cannot possibly approximate. Judith Butler’s Subjects of Desire provides an overview of Hegel’s French reception, and the place of his desiring subject in subsequent “anti-Hegelian” thought. The sections on Kojeve, Hyppolite, and Sartre are all very useful—while those on the following generation are a tad brief (here’s hoping that Butler will one day pick up this Hegelian thread again, as they suggest they might in the preface to this book). The essay collection Hegel and the Infinite, edited by Zizek, Crockett, and Davis, is a decent volume that presents unorthodox readings of Hegel. Some of these cite Zizek and Lacan more than Hegel himself, but that’s little surprise. My favourite articles are those by Malabou, Bosteels, and Pahl.

Among all this secondary Hegel literature, the standouts were, alongside Hyppolite’s commentary, the works of Gillian Rose, Rebecca Comay, and Stephen Houlgate. Rose’s Hegel Contra Sociology is an incredible reconstruction of Hegel’s body of work and the radical consequences of his speculative method. A rigorous reading of Hegel reveals that, far from the thinker of totality and interiority which he has been made out to be, he is an essential thinker of the moving contradictions, conceptual limitations, modes of domination that make up the modern world. Mourning Becomes the Law is likewise an excellent work, which collects Rose’s essays on topics ranging from Fascism and representation to comedy and death—including a moving final essay that reflects on Rose’s own imminent passing. “The Comedy of Hegel and the Trauerspiel of Modern Philosophy” included in this volume is possibly the shortest summation of Rose’s thought and the stakes of her engagement with Hegel, and a text which I cannot recommend highly enough.

Comay’s Mourning Sickness is at face value an examination of Hegel’s response to the French Revolution, and the critical role which the Terror played within his thought—and beyond this, it is a fascinating account of historical time, rupture, and melancholy in its own right. The sequel to this work, The Dash, written with Frank Ruda, is a short collection of essays on the close of the Phenomenology and the opening of the Logic, with a focus on the eponymous dash that fragments both texts (“Lifeless and alone; only—” and “Being, pure being—”). Just as Mourning Sickness uses the historical context of Hegel’s work as a jumping off point for a discussion of trauma and repetition in general, The Dash attempts to take seriously the moments of interruption and hesitation which characterise Hegel’s approach to absolute knowing. Finally, Houlgate’s The Opening of Hegel’s Logic is a crystal clear exposition of the beginning of the Science of Logic, from pure being to the true infinite. Houlgate renders the thorniest of Hegel’s arguments lucid and defends the work’s status as an essential work of critical philosophy, and in the process writes what is easily the most compelling opening onto Hegel’s philosophy as a whole that I encountered this year.

The Fiction:

In between the theory and philosophy, I tried to read more fiction this year. This began with picking through Clarice Lispector’s Complete Stories, which continued through most of the year. As is to be expected in a book that spans a life, there was some variance in quality, with plenty of high points, especially in “Family Ties” and “The Foreign Legion.” Early in the year I re-read Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s grisly occult thriller From Hell—my first re-read in over a decade, this time making sure to read all of Moore’s annotations for the wry comments on his sources and the more speculative moments of the story. This wasn’t the last work of horror fiction that I read, as I picked up Mika’s No Tiger, a poetry collection that catalogues forever war fever dreams and machinic paraphilias, seemingly written around the end of an empire, punctured by melancholy meditations on what we might (insufficiently) call identity—in its myriad fragmented, brutalised, and commodified forms. This was followed by B.R. Yeager’s novel Negative Space and experimental object Pearl Death. The former is a monstrous vision of contemporary dystopia, which begins as a tale of small town blues and spirals out to a worm-ridden universe; the latter takes the form of a deck of cards, each of which depicts an object from a plagued world, accompanied by evocative and enigmatic descriptions. Both of Yeager’s works convey occult tales of social malaise, in which ritual self-abnegation is the only escape from that creeping, ambient death.

Samuel Delany’s Trouble on Triton blew me away. It is a painfully introspective novel about someone who, in a far-future world which can satisfy all wants, confronts the suffocation of not knowing oneself—let alone being able to speak one’s desires. Delany asks: What place is there in Utopia for the fuck ups? A less successful work of sci-fi was Chronosis, by Negarestani, Tilford, and Mackay, which could not decide whether it wanted to be a philosophical tract on the nature of time, a short horror story, or an abstract work of visual storytelling. More disappointing was Weather by Jenny Offill, which expresses political and climate anxiety through the bored trivialities of American middle-class life. A text more symptomatic of that worldview than it is perceptive in its own right. On the other hand, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room was excellent and heartbreaking. Patience Agbabi’s Telling Tales was a fun retelling of Chaucer in the styles of hip hop, slam, and other contemporary poetic forms. Evelyn Araluen’s Drop Bear stood out as a collection of poetry which cuts through the platitudes of Australiana to unveil the truth of a blood-soaked country. Araluen’s poetry is spoken between apocalypses: a still-living colonialism, haunted by the unburied dead, beset by fire and floods. In the last half of the year I also began reading Kentaro Miura’s manga series Berserk, making my way from volume one of the ongoing Dark Horse hardcovers through to volume five—covering from the Dark Swordsman arc through to the end of The Golden Age. These made for fun reading between the Hegel lit, and through the slog of the most recent Victorian lockdown, while still presenting plenty of substance in Miura’s intricate penwork and his story’s themes of fate and will.

The End:

Intermittently throughout the year I caught up on a backlog of journals acquired in 2020 and 2021. These included Monthly Review (72: 4-11 and 73: 1-5), New Left Review (124, 126-29; apparently they forgot to send me 125), and Overland (242-3), totally a neat 20 volumes, and bringing my total number of books read in 2021 to 85.

My ten favourite reads of the year are, in alphabetical order:

— Benjamin, Arcades Project
— Delany, Trouble on Triton
— Comay, Mourning Sickness
— Fanon, Black Skin White Masks
— Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit
— Houlgate, Opening of Hegel’s Logic
— Hyppolite, Genesis and Structure
— Lopez, Lukacs
— Rose, Hegel Contra Sociology
— Tombazos, Time in Marx

In 2021 I’m starting with a read through of the rest of Gillian Rose’s published works, and after that I’m hoping to pick up where I left off with Benjamin before making my way back to Hegel again, this time with a focus on his use of form, fiction, and genre to communicate his philosophy. I’m also making a commitment to read more longer works of fiction, but we’ll see how that goes.

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