Over the course of 2022 I maintained a Twitter thread of the books that I read, with short reviews, comments, and thoughts attached. The thread (which you can find here) ended up with 79 individual posts, making it nearly unnavigable through Twitter, so I have decided to put it all in one place in a slightly neater format. As with last year’s reading summary, I have sorted the entries into broad topics, but have attempted to retain some kind of chronological order overall.
After being blown away last year by Hegel Contra Sociology and Mourning Becomes the Law, I set myself the goal of reading the rest of Gillian Rose’s works (save for The Melancholy Science, which I read a few years ago and need to return to at some point). The first of these was Love’s Work, Rose’s final complete work, which presents her reflections on the labours of love, faith, and thought that punctuate a life, written and illuminated under the shadow of death. This was followed by her final, unfinished work, Paradiso, which continues the themes of Love’s Work in a small collection of portraits of friends and personal figures, along with some excellent discussions of Kierkegaard, Augustine, and Gnosticism. More in the vein of Hegel Contra Sociology’s dense philosophical prose, Dialectic of Nihilism is possibly Rose’s most challenging work, which follows the jurisprudential terms of modern philosophy from Kant’s court of reason to post-structuralism’s attempted escape from metaphysical law. What that work critiques, The Broken Middle attempts to recompose: springing from the encounter of Hegel and Kierkegaard, it follows the concept of the middle (that does not unite nor separate its two halves, but maintains them in their common diremption) as it appears in the literature on law, ethics, violence, and love. Finally, I read Judaism and Modernity—much of the theological discussion in this book was beyond me, though the essays on Nietzsche, Adorno, and Benjamin are some of the best writings on those thinkers that I have encountered.
Continuing on from last year, I caught up on the Selected Works of Walter Benjamin alongside a heap of secondary literature. Volume 2 includes a broad selection of Benjamin’s journalistic work as well as his writing as a critic, with the essays on Goethe, Surrealism, Proust, Kierkegaard, and Kafka standing out as representative his mature style. Volume 3 is full of material presaging The Arcades Project and the “Theses on the Concept of History,” exemplified by “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” “The Storyteller,” and the Eduard Fuchs essay. Lastly, Volume 4 contains the famous “Theses” and their preparatory notes, as well as the bulk of Benjamin’s Baudelaire studies.
Of the secondary literature on Benjamin that I read, the first was Christine Buci-Glucksmann’s Baroque Reason. This book presents an interesting reading of Walter Benjamin’s work on modernity, the baroque, and history through his figures of the feminine and otherness. It’s not exactly the clearest theorising, but it presents the novel possibility of a posthuman Benjamin, whose angels and allegorical figures are defined by their melancholic separation from human affairs. Peter Fenves’s Messianic Reduction also left me somewhat cold, although it is certainly an interesting exercise in piecing together minutiae to work out what Benjamin thought about time, aesthetics, and post-Kantianism in the 1910s. More impressive were Alison Ross’s two books on Benjamin, Walter Benjamin’s Concept of the Image and Revolution and History in Walter Benjamin. The first of these delivers perfectly on its title, as a dense 150 pages on Benjamin’s theory of symbolism and allegory, his critique of aestheticism, and his thought on the historicity of images. The second is another clear and concise explication of some of Benjamin’s core concepts, with an especial focus on the tensions within his notion of collective experience and its place in revolutionary thought.
In preparation for my upcoming MSCP lecture series, I re-read Michael Lowy’s Fire Alarm, a short but detailed commentary on Benjamin’s 1940 “Theses,” with a strong account of Benjamin’s theological and Romantic influence. I also read Michael Steinberg’s collected volume Walter Benjamin and the Demands of History, of which the standout essays were Ranciere on dreaming and modernity, Meltzer on academic melancholia, and Wohlfarth on Benjamin’s critique of cultural history. Finally, adjacent to Benjamin, and a work that left a major impression on his early conception of the messianic, is Franz Rosenzweig’s Star of Redemption. This work presents an ambitious synthesis of the Abrahamic religions into a single cosmic vision, by way of the conceptual categories of German Idealism.
Beginning with a few works that influenced Benjamin’s revolutionary turn, I made time to read some works of Marxist theory. Karl Korsch’s Marxism and Philosophy is a short introduction to Marx’s relation to German idealism and his supersession of bourgeois philosophy in both theory and practice. The Monthly Review edition also includes Korsch’s later comments on the project and its denunciation by the party orthodoxy. Likewise, Korsch’s Karl Marx is a neat primer on Marx’s work and his importance as a thinker of history and materialism in contrast with his idealist and bourgeois predecessors. This later work sacrifices some of the sharpness of its precursor, although it is, incidentally, a work cited about as frequently as Marx himself in Benjamin’s Arcades Project. In the same vein, although with a far more expansive legacy, is Georg Lukacs’s History and Class Consciousness, which documents the author’s conversion to Marxism and his urgent theorisations of state, party, and reification.
On the technical side of things, The Capitalist Cycle by early Soviet economist Pavel Maksakovsky gives an account of capitalist cycles at local and macro scales, and a reconstruction of Marx’s theory of capital’s cyclical crises. In conversation with both Benjamin and Lukacs is Massimiliano Tomba’s Marx’s Temporalities, which presents a useful overview of Marx’s writings on time and history, from his historical writings to his comments on the lived experience of capitalist modernity. The chapter on phantasmagoria and capitalist temporality is of especial interest. Giovanni Arrighi’s The Long Twentieth Century takes the Marxist theory of crisis to its widest scope in a sweeping history of the capitalist word system, through its cyclical phases of accumulation and financialisation, from Genoese merchant capital to America’s global hegemony.
More unorthodox still than the Benjaminian Marxism that inflected most of this year’s reading is Slavoj Zizek’s Sublime Object of Ideology. Zizek might be a meme these days, but this was really good! A compelling introduction to why Lacan and Hegel still matter for thinking ourselves as social, ideological subjects. Offering another line of transmission between philosophy and Marxism is Jonas Ceika’s How to Philosophize with a Hammer, an accessible introduction to the political stakes of Nietzsche’s thought, his place alongside Marx as a radical thinker of modernity, and his call to “the great liberation” of humanity. Finally, Ernst Bloch’s Spirit of Utopia is a work of “revolutionary gnosis” that blends a Romantic style and spirit with Marxist politics. An ecstatic lament for the failed German revolution, to be systematised later in Bloch’s Principle of Hope.
In the middle of the year, I made a turn from Benjamin and Marx back to a continued reading of Hegel, focusing especially on his philosophy of art and participation in generic conventions. The one work by Hegel himself that I read in full was his Lectures on the Philosophy of World History—handily his worst book, in which the late urge for systematicity overtakes the mass of empirical materials that were available to him—doing justice to neither element, as he tries his best to assimilate everything to the narrative of freedom’s gradual realisation. Another curious exercise in condensation is H.S. Harris’s Phenomenology and System, which offers a compact exegesis of the Phenomenology of Spirit, reduced down to an odd hundred pages. As work of summary it is an incredible achievement, but for the purposes of explication, for anyone not already familiar with Hegel’s text, it risks becoming truly incredible. Robert Pippin’s Hegel’s Idealism encounters some awkwardness as the author tries to make Hegel palatable to an analytic audience, with all the hedging that entails (and cutting off the explication of the Phenomenology without touching the chapters on ‘Reason’ and ‘Spirit’), though it is nonetheless a strong argument for the critical, anti-metaphysical, post-Kantian Hegel.
Turning to the philosophy of art, Giorgio Agamben’s Man Without Content is a neat little book on the history of aesthetics, from the artwork’s scission from practical work in Plato to its self-negation in Hegel, with illuminating digressions on the invention of taste and the artist-spectator dichotomy. Alois Riegl’s Historical Grammar is another Hegel-inflected work of art history, which documents the transformation of the visual artwork from prehistory to early modernity, with a focus on the formal evolution of visual styles (a formalism set within an overarching historicism informed by Hegel’s aesthetics). Allen Speight’s Hegel, Literature, and the Problem of Agency is a peculiar work of analytic Hegelianism that attempts to extract a philosophy of agency from the literary references of the Phenomenology’s ‘Spirit’ chapter—without thereby “doing” literary studies, the author insists. Pertaining directly to Hegel’s philosophy of art are two excellent commentaries on his Lectures on Fine Art, the first being Hegel and the Arts, edited by Stephen Houlgate. This is a great selection of essays on Hegel’s relation to the arts, not limited to his lectures on aesthetics, with standout essays on the epochs of art, abstract art, painting, tragedy, and romanticism. The second is Lydia Moland’s Hegel’s Aesthetics, an exceptionally clear commentary and guide to Hegel’s Lectures on Fine Art, which shows a great attention to the structure of his argument, art’s place in his system, and the import of his aesthetic theory for the later history of art.
On the topic of Hegel and the theory of genre, Mark Alznauer’s edited collection Hegel on Tragedy and Comedy includes standout essays on Hegel’s relation to Goethe and Shakespeare, and the leap from Aristophanic laughter to Christianity’s divine comedy. Theodore George’s Tragedies of Spirit makes a reading of the Phenomenology that places tragic finitude at its heart. I’m not entirely convinced by the focus on “irreconcilable conflict” as a central theme of the text, although George’s marshalling of Hölderlin, Nietzsche, and Derrida to make his intervention is compelling. Less compelling is Mark Roche’s Tragedy and Comedy, a self-consciously old-fashioned work of formalism, which aims to complete Hegel’s typology of genres. In pursuit of a “systematic” elaboration of all possible narrative forms, the author is caught between his “transcendental” definitions of genres and his evaluative judgements of the works that don’t fit his mould—producing a typology that is in fact more rigid and with less descriptive acuity than the historicist models against which he polemicises. David Krell’s Tragic Absolute is a fine collection of essays on Schelling’s and Hölderlin’s philosophies of tragedy and their Romantic failure to think the absolute, hampered mainly by a faux-poetic style that performatively repeats this same failure to find an adequate mode of expression.
The result of all this reading was a paper presented for the Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy conference in December, on Hegel and comedy, which you can read here.
The Lit Crit:
Alongside my return to Hegel, I also tried to catch up on a backlog of literary theory and criticism. This began with Fredric Jameson’s Allegory and Ideology, a massive, erudite account of allegoresis as method and practice. Some of the essays wander a bit, but the three on Dante, Spenser, and Goethe stand out, not only as prequels to his books on realism and modernism. Jameson’s Marxism and Form is him at his best, picking up on the hermeneutical thread that runs through twentieth-century Marxist theory, with a final chapter that functions as a program for the dialectical criticism he has been practicing for the five decades since. Additionally, Jameson’s small book on Raymond Chandler is proof that Jameson can write something short and punchy when he wants to, delivering three concise essays on Chandler’s style, social world, and latent metaphysics. Adjacent to Jameson’s Marxist hermeneutics is Sianne Ngai’s Theory of the Gimmick, the third part of her excellent series on the aesthetic forms of late capitalism, this time turning to the gimmick (the object or technique that is both too much and too little effort) as a category of aesthetic judgment.
Aristotle’s Poetics is a banger—what more can be said. Conversely, Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy isn’t his best book, but it is classic Nietzsche in all his overwrought glory. The Cambridge Press edition that I read also includes the essay “Dionysiac Worldview,” which elaborates on the Apolline-Dionysian dialectic, and “On Truth and Lying,” which further historicises that split between reason and feeling. As part of Thomas Moran’s lecture series “Nietzsche’s Children: The Nietzschean Impulse & the 20th Century Avant-Garde” for the Melbourne School of Literature, we read Hilda Dootlittle’s Notes on Thought and Vision, an ecstatic work of poetic theorising (“The serpent—the jelly-fish—the over-mind.” “Avaunt pig!” “The body, I suppose, like a lump of coal, fulfills its highest function when it is being consumed.” “It is all spirit, but spirit in different forms.”) Georg Lukacs’s Soul and Form continues this Nietzschean thread. It is Lukacs’s first book, written a decade before his conversion to Marxism, though many of his later preoccupations with consciousness and totality appear here in an aesthetic, apolitical form. The essays on Novalis and tragedy are standouts. Taking a more critical line on his Romantic precursors, Lukacs’s Goethe and His Age is an incredible work of historical literary criticism, looking to Goethe’s place within the socio-economic conditions and dialectical philosophy of his day. The standout essays are those on Wilhelm Meister and Faust, as well as on Hölderlin and Schiller.
Near the end of the year, I dipped my feet into the structuralist poetics of Tzvetan Todorov and Gerard Genette. Todorov’s Introduction to Poetics is a compact handbook on the fundamental categories of discursive analysis and narrative structure. It ends with the curious proposition that poetics is only a transitional field: as poetics discovers the necessary conditions for literary expression, and therefore for language as such, it dissolves into general linguistics. In this twilight zone between literary criticism and structural linguistics, Genette’s Narrative Discourse is a fascinating exercise in the systematisation of literary studies, which builds a language to describe the possible configurations of narrative structure—centred around Proust’s Search as both example and exception to those structures.
The Rest of the Nonfiction:
Which leaves only the fiction and miscellaneous nonfiction. I read only two works of history this year, the first being Vincent Bevins’s The Jakarta Method. This is a monumental work of research into the Indonesian mass killings of the 1960s and the global networks of anticommunist terror that emerged throughout Southeast Asia and Latin America in the following decades. Essential reading. The other is Peter Linebaugh’s Red Round Globe Hot Burning, a sprawling history of revolution, colonialism, and the commons at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, centred on the life, trial, and execution for conspiracy of Edward Despard.
I also read two works of art theory unrelated to the aforementioned studies of Benjamin and Hegel. One of these is John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, which I’ve read a few times before and this year had the pleasure of teaching. The other is Adorno’s Lectures on Aesthetics (1958-9), which is a little repetitious at points, as Adorno circles back to the central aesthetic category of beauty in its many instantiations, although it’s nice to see the development of the ideas that will guide his Aesthetic Theory a decade later.
At some point I read Bas Aarts’s Modern English Grammar. I’ve got nothing to say about this, so here’s Hegel on why grammar can be exciting:
“He who is beginning to make his acquaintance with grammar finds in its forms and laws dry abstractions, arbitrary rules, quite in general a disconnected aggregate of definitions that have no other value or meaning than what they immediately signify; at the start, there is nothing to be known in them except themselves. On the other hand, he who has mastered a language and is also acquainted with other languages with which to compare it, to such is given the capacity to feel in the grammar of the language the spirit and culture of a people; the same rules and forms now have an enriched, living value” (Science of Logic p. 36).
I read some miscellaneous works of philosophy this year. One of these was SPLM: Society for the Propagation of Libidinal Materialism, a collection of evil essays on libidinal materialist para-phenomena, from the figure of the tomb to the desert of the real, drug-fuelled mysticism to eschatological premonitions. This includes a few pieces by friends in the Melbourne theory scene, as well as my piece on the “Subterranean Imaginary.” Another is Aristotle’s Organon. The translation I read is quite dated, and the print-on-demand copy I got included neither On Sophistical Refutations nor Porphyry’s introduction, though, luckily, I mainly read it for the Categories and On Interpretation. As part of a reading group, I read Heidegger’s Identity and Difference, which is a little collection of seminar papers, one of which deals impenetrably with the concepts named in the title, and the other with Marty’s attempt to differentiate his engagement with the history of philosophy from that of Hegel.
At the end of the year I decided it was time to stop reading bits and pieces of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and do the whole thing from cover to cover. It’s a surprisingly gripping read—one of the more exciting ‘boring’ books that I’ve ever read—and a fittingly caustic end to the epoch of Enlightenment metaphysics. This was followed by a re-reading of Adorno’s lectures on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, which is not so much a reconstruction of the CPR as an argument for its ongoing relevance, for the insights that have been disguised in dogma, and for its contradictions and ideological limits as evidence of the great vitality of Kant’s thought. Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics is the original “Dummy’s Guide to the Critique of Pure Reason.” Somehow drier than the CPR despite being a fraction of the size, nonetheless it’s nice to review what Kant’s says he thinks, or what he thinks he said, in that work. Skipping over the second critique (okay, I’ll get there), I read the Critique of the Power of Judgment. Reading this I can see why Deleuze likened the Kant of the third critique to King Lear trying to unite his kingdom, as he jumps from a transcendental account of aesthetics, to a philosophy of nature, to a moral proof of god—barely held together at the seams. Finally, I read Henry Allison’s Kant’s Transcendental Idealism, a solid reconstruction of Kant’s argument in the first Critique that aims to correct the misunderstandings of his idealism, without excusing the methodological slips that he makes.
The first work of fiction I read this year was Maggie Seibert’s short horror collection Bonding, which not only delivers shocks, but grasps the unsettling, ugly feelings that pervade the everyday of social alienation and dead-end labour—an everyday which is not merely disrupted but enlivened by the grotesque. I read volumes 6 and 7 of Kentaro Miura’s Berserk Deluxe Edition, which span up to the end of the Conviction arc and include some of the most stunning and horrifying of Miura’s artwork yet. I also re-read Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, my first Pynchon re-read since finishing my thesis. A deceptively straightforward (by Pynchon’s standards) hardboiled tale harbouring preoccupations with land theft, deep state machinations, and the rumbling of sunken continents—you can read my paper on it here.
I read two collections of poetry: The Poetry of Rilke, translated by Edward Snow with a deft balance between legibility and poetic form, which includes the entire Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus, plus a selection of other poems; and Lucy Van’s The Open, a short collection of prose poems that wander in monologues through questions of memory, Australian/Vietnamese history and identity, erudition and its pitfalls, and tennis. Although not poetry per se, Beckett’s Company / Ill Seen Ill Said / Worstward Ho / Stirrings Still collects his final works, in which his subtractive style is intensified to new heights, new lows, especially in the heartbreaking Company, and in Worstward Ho, which remains one of my favourite pieces of short prose.
The novels that I read this year include two by Goethe. When Benjamin said that Elective Affinities was a book about the demonic powers of fate, he wasn’t exaggerating. A tale of aristocratic aesthetes ruining themselves in unconscious pursuit of their passions; a tragedy for the bloodless. The Sorrows of Young Werther made less of an impression, but I read most of it on an interminable late-night / early-morning bus ride, which didn’t help my engagement with the plot, although it enhanced the despair. Possibly the best thing I read this year was Olga Tokarczuk’s Books of Jacob, an immense and moving work of historical fiction, tracing the life of messiah Jacob Frank and his acolytes through eighteenth-century Europe and beyond, in their attempted escape from the laws and rulers of this world. Following my reading of Beckett’s late prose, I tried one of his earlier novels, Watt. This is a supremely difficult novel to get a grasp of, as it is more prone to formal exercises in iteration than the Trilogy that followed, while performing these exercises at much greater length than Beckett’s late prose. An exhausting work—which is no complaint.
Lastly, I read several works of tragedy, beginning with Sophocles’s Theban Plays (Antigone, Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus). These were all fantastic. I don’t know how well the Fagles translation is regarded, but it seemed quite readable to me and includes extensive introductory essays on the historical context of the plays’ composition and production. Following the trilogy of Sophocles I read three of Shakespeare’s great tragedies, Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear—which coincidentally corresponded to the preoccupations of the Theban Plays: youth and inheritance in Antigone and Hamlet; maturity and sovereignty in Macbeth and Oedipus Rex; old age and legacy in Lear and Oedipus at Colonus. Of these, I found Lear the most impressive, as it dramatises the squabbles of sovereignty against the backdrop of a bleak earth, in which the fall from worse to worst knows no end. Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s Life in a Dream is a strange and heavily symbolic Baroque play of sovereignty, nature, and reality—unfortunately I found it a clunky translation that runs up against the old problem of approximating the poetic style of the original. Andreas Gryphius’s Leo Armenius and Catharine of Georgia are similarly obscure works of baroque tragedy (that is, Trauerspiel not Tragödie) that dramatise the violence of sovereign power, the transience of earthly things, and the ruin of worldly ambition. As per Benjamin’s study of the genre: it is a tragedy without transcendence. Lastly, I re-read Goethe’s Faust I & II in Stuart Atkins’s translation (Princeton), which remains immensely compelling, even through the obscure meditations of Part Two, and in this edition is both clearly translated and unabridged.
Throughout the year I sporadically read the journals Overland (issues 244-7), Meanjin (volume 81: 2-4), Arena (no. 11), Monthly Review (volumes 73: 9-11 and 74: 1-6), and New Left Review (issues 133/134-137). Issue 247 of Overland includes by piece on Wake in Fright, which can also be read online here.
All in all, I read 79 books this year. Of these, my ten favourites are, in alphabetical order:
— Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century
— Beckett, Late Prose
— Bevins, The Jakarta Method
— Goethe, Elective Affinities
— Jameson, Marxism and Form
— Kant, Critique of Pure Reason
— Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness
— Rose, Love’s Work
— Shakespeare, King Lear
— Tokarczuk, Books of Jacob
Next year I’m planning to read more widely in the Hegel scholarship, to supplement my ongoing study of the Phenomenology with a better understanding of his Logic, and potentially with a return to his Lectures on Fine Art (which was my introduction to his writing a couple years ago). Assuming Hegel doesn’t take up the entire year, I have plans for further work on Gillian Rose and a desire to delve deeper into the historical materialist tradition.