Tag Archives: summer 2010


Jacques Rancière
Verso ($23.95)

by Adrian Doerr

The five pieces included in Jacques Rancière’s The Emancipated Spectator offer up an accessible, if sometimes frustrating, introduction to his work as a whole. Built up and refined from an extensive list of lectures spanning four years, these chapters possess the looser, more relaxed feel of an academic talk, lending them an approachability that is often absent from a more rigorous philosophical work.

Rancière utilizes a great deal of allusion to other theories, with the consequence that his arguments, at times, move very quickly from example to example without a great deal of further explanation. This is not to say more intensive discussions of philosophy are absent in this work—indeed, the first four chapters are all, in some way, grounded in a critique both of Plato’s theory of images and Guy Debord’s prescribed antidotes to the “society of the spectacle,” namely his concept of détournement.

The guiding thread that connects these critiques is the spectator’s involvement and interpretive place in the relationship between politics and the visual arts. The latter here is conceived of very broadly, as Rancière’s discussions dwell primarily on drama, film, photography, and modern art, but also include excursions into literature and video. His primary concern is with the traditional conceptual division between making and viewing, with the former endowed with a dynamic activity and the latter consigned to a thoughtless passivity. Like most conceptual dualities for French theory, Rancière finds this one lacking on several levels.

Most importantly, he wants to challenge the idea that a leftist political art that makes a conscious attempt to move the spectator from a passive to active state, through the elimination of the gap between viewing and acting, offers up a form of liberation for the viewer. Instead, Rancière charges such work with replicating a certain paternalistic attitude toward the audience, an attitude that exists as the obverse of Plato’s conservative theories about viewing.

He specifically points to Brecht and Artaud’s theatrical methods, as well as Martha Rosler’s photo—collages, as participating in this process, although one could add other examples, such as some of Godard’s films of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Despite the well-meaning political commitment of these works, Rancière argues they fail to leave space for viewers to develop their own political and aesthetic conclusions, fundamentally limiting the ability to participate in the meaning making process.

Thus, the emancipated spectator of the book’s title emerges “when we challenge the opposition between viewing and acting . . . when we understand that viewing is also an action that confirms or transforms this distribution of positions.” With this argument Rancière re elaborates a position he first presented inThe Ignorant Schoolmaster, in which traditional pedagogical techniques, where an instructor with mastery of a subject matter dispenses it to ignorant pupils, are overturned in favor of a system where a teacher assists students in following the contours of their own learning processes. At the basis of this alternate form of pedagogy is a conviction in the fundamental equality of all individuals’ capacities for understanding and learning.

This theme of intellectual egalitarianism is by far the strongest of the book, and it has obvious repercussions on how we understand political art. For Rancière this means that politics does not need to be injected into art to make it socially responsible, but that the process works the opposite way, since “aesthetic experience has a political effect.” The new ways of seeing that art engenders within the spectator offer up a variety of newfound perspectives to create potential communities that challenge dominant political and social orders.

Despite the obvious admirable position of these arguments, Rancière rarely takes stock of their limitations. For while it is one thing to affirm the ontological equality of all spectators, it is another to recognize the way dominant social processes, like that of traditional pedagogy, inculcate habits and modes of thinking that mould this unbounded capacity for viewing in thoroughly rigid ways.

This objection leads back to the problem of ideology, today so unfashionable, that Rancière dismisses early in his argument in chapter one. But philosophically arguing away an issue too often substitutes for its social resolution, which suggests, at least to this reader, that Rancière’s egalitarian aesthetics are in need of a sociology of art to complement, and complicate, their cogent critiques.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010


Leo Damrosch
Farrar, Straus and Giroux ($27)

by Spencer Dew

To celebrate the inauguration of America’s first populist president, Andrew Jackson supporters in Philadelphia roped a bison to a tree, riddled it with bullets and hacked it apart with an ax. Political spectacle here takes on the shape of terrifying religious ritual or, depending on your sympathy, mob madness. As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in reference to another such spectacle—a bloodless Fourth of July parade, where associations of laborers trudged along behind a flag from the Revolutionary War, a handful of veterans, and “a richly decorated float bearing the first press that was used to print the Declaration of Independence”—“in our [French] fetes there is more brilliance, and in those of the United States, more truth.” The explication of such truth, the analysis of how a political system shapes the lives of its citizens and how political ideals are warped by lived application, became Tocqueville’s goal. He and his friend and colleague Gustave de Beaumont realized, during their nine months in country, that they were destined to speak to far more than the state of the American penitentiary system they had officially been sent over to inspect.

This slim book by Leo Damrosch “seeks to bring that traveler and that world to life, through Tocqueville’s own highly perceptive observations at the time and through the wealth of comments on Jacksonian America made by a host of contemporaries, especially other foreign visitors who published book-length accounts.” These parallel sources—including, for instance, Charles Dickens’s reflections on his American travels—not only provide for a more textured sense of American society, they also serve to highlight, via contrast, the sympathy and sharpness of Tocqueville, this self-described “pitiless questioner” intent not just on witnessing but on understanding American culture. Even more revealing are Tocqueville’s voluminous correspondence and notes, from his field notes (scribbled in handwriting so cramped he called it “rabbit turds,” collected “in little notebooks that he folded and stitched by hand”) to his marginal notations. Damrosch, in drawing on materials as-yet-unavailable in English translation, is able to offer a rich portrait of Jacksonian American while guiding his readers along Tocqueville’s intellectual journey as well as his physical travels.

Tocqueville, as a Frenchman, knew that the quest for liberty and equality could lead to new forms of repression, and such concerns guided his work in America, where he and Beaumont acted as “investigative reporters,” talking to people famous and unknown, from Josiah Quincey and Sam Houston to a wide variety of charming young ladies at formal balls and a particular forest-dwelling hermit who kept a pet bear. From New York (where they lamented the lack of a grand skyline) to the edges of the frontier (where real Indians fell repeatedly short of their romantic ideals), the two friends sought to crack this “nation of paradox, of individualists who were deeply conformist,” of citizens who valued freedom yet owned other humans, of society women who surrendered autonomy at marriage, and of a federal government that drew its strength from decentralization. His curiosity was matched by passionate appreciation for both ideas and the intricacies of lived culture. It’s a joy to hear his rapt appreciation of the American vernaculars and his connection of such perpetual reshaping of language to the mindset of democracy. While, like his contemporaries, he relies on some crackpot theories (that human behavior is tied to climate, for instance), his penetrating take on Puritan values remains pertinent today, and there is certainly something refreshing in his admiration for American practical intelligence. Sure, he observes, there is no literature or philosophy to speak of in this country, but “‘I doubt that More would have written his Utopia if he had been able to realize some of his dreams in English government, and I think the Germans of our own day wouldn’t philosophize so passionately about universal truth if they could put some of their ideas into political practice.’” Though later in life he would seek to apply some of the lessons of the American system of government to France, he remains far from utopian in his general assessment of democracy.

In democracy there was danger of tyranny by the majority. Public opinion, freely expressed, could lead to a form of oppression unlike those seen before in Europe. “A self-governing people could internalize rigid attitudes and inhibitions, and in effect police its own behavior,” Damrosch writes. RevisingDemocracy in America for the second edition, Tocqueville had a firmer grasp on the risks at play in democracy. In a note he wrote, “New despotism. It is in the portrayal of this that resides all the originality and depth of my idea. What I said in my first work was hackneyed and superficial.” In Tocqueville’s vision of the political future, terms like “despotism” and “tyranny” become archaic, even quaint–like a prison he visited in Pennsylvania, described in a guidebook as “the only edifice in this country which is calculated to convey to our citizens the external appearance of those magnificent and picturesque castles of the middles ages, which contribute so eminently to embellish the scenery of Europe.” Indeed, for Tocqueville, a prison designed, on the outside, to look like so much “scenery” and constructed, internally, as a panopticon for constant surveillance and control of the convicts, stands as a useful metaphor of his own theories. As he formulates it, “an immense tutelary power” operates at the controls of American life, one that “would resemble paternal power if its object was to prepare men for adult life, but it seeks on the contrary to keep them in permanent childhood. It likes citizens to enjoy themselves, so long as all they think about is enjoyment.”

This notion remains prescient. Indeed, as history progresses, we see more and more ways in which Tocqueville’s original insights prove true. The new form of oppression he warned about—a democratic society lulled into placation by titillations and amusements, the illusion of diverse opinions and dispersed systems of control—remains the oppression we, as citizens, must struggle against, though even this “struggle” can denigrate to essentially empty theatrics. While many details have changed since Tocqueville’s visit—Damrosch offers a depressing comparison between the environs of Detroit in 1831 versus the polluted urban landscape there today—the political dynamics he identified remain. And while no one is soon likely to massacre a buffalo as political celebration (or protest), such spectacles continue, evidence both of the vitality Tocqueville witnessed and the grave dangers he warned against.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010

WILD COMFORT: The Solace of Nature

Kathleen Dean Moore
Trumpeter ($15.95)

by Scott F. Parker

Walt Whitman once wrote, “After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, and so on—have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear—what remains? Nature remains.” Nature, for Kathleen Dean Moore, is the refuge of last resort in times of grief as well as in times of meaninglessness. As she quotes from Rachel Carson in the epigraph to Wild Comfort, “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”

A reserve of strength is just what Moore needed in the wake of several loved ones dying in a short time, and it’s the search for that strength that drives her book. Instead of a through-narrative, though, Wild Comfort comprises twenty-eight short pieces linked by the theme Moore offers right up front: “I am trying to understand this, the power of water, air, earth, and time to bring gladness gradually from grief and to restore meaning to lives that seem empty or unmoored.” On the following page she offers her solution, which she develops throughout the book via careful attention and sustained reflection: “The Earth holds every possibility inside it, and the mystery of transformation, one thing into another. This is the wildest comfort. That’s what this book is about.”

With plenty of room for exceptions, the pieces tend to open with Moore exploring (hiking, camping, kayaking, and more) the wilderness (in Oregon, Alaska, Mexico, and elsewhere). As an experienced nature-goer, Moore knows to slow down amidst her explorations enough that she really notices and engages her surroundings, which allows her to reflect abstractly and insightfully on what she sees. For example, in “Winter Geese in a Green Field,” Moore is in Oregon watching flocks of geese. The geese refuse to move in a pattern she can recognize and she grows frustrated searching for the right analogy: a shaken rug—no; a shiver down a dog’s spine—no; children playing crack the whip—better, but no; commuters fleeing terrorists—no. Before long, the silliness of her frustration occurs to her: “How are we to make any sense out of anything? Is this what it means to be human—to search and search for meaning in a world that has none? To sit in damp grass day after day, waiting for geese to somehow organize themselves into one great true sentence written in the sky? It’s absurd.” And following close on the insight is the solace she finds again and again in nature: “Why am I looking for meaning instead of looking for geese?” Or, from another piece in the book: “My experience is that as soon as I write down the moral of a story about the natural world, something takes me by surprise.”

This is one of the lessons Moore takes again and again from nature:

We are not:
The purpose of the universe.
The universe does not:
Exist for our sakes.

The trick, Moore thinks, is learning to appreciate what’s here—the miracle of existence. And grief canremind us to be grateful. In “Things With Feathers,” she describes her friend Franz the last time she saw him before he was killed in a car accident:

Sitting in a camp chair in front of a U.S. Forest Service sign that read, “Do Not Feed the Animals,” he was feeding the birds, breaking bread into small pieces and tucking the pieces into his wool cap, into folds on his shoulders, putting pieces of bread on his knees, in the crook of his elbow, holding bread out in his hand . . . A jay landed on his knee. Another swooped across his face to take the offering from his shoulder. Jays gathered in the branches above him and dropped onto his head. With his eyes scrunched shut and his smile beatific, my friend was hidden behind a flurry of gray feathers, flaring tails, the swirling, crying birds. This did not keep him from dying, but for that moment, it seemed as if he could fly.

Moments like these resist sentimentality because of Moore’s awareness and description of nature. (“Rain that fell like dead weight all winter long defies gravity in the spring.” Do people not from Oregon know how accurate this is?) The prose, with its studied focus on beauty, mystery, and life, begs to be read slowly. The pace of the writing wonderfully mimics, and thereby evokes, the calming effect of meandering through a forest or watching waves crash over rocks, making Wild Comfort not a can’t-put-down but a must-put-down book. Moore’s thoughts are the kind that only come to one in times of calm, and to get them you must enter into their space. When reading, for example, “Every moment we are glad for the twilight of morning, we are not vexed,” it’s necessary to stop, picture the twilight of morning, and feel the absence of vexation. In slowing us down like this, on pretty much every page, Moore asks us to join her in being present—and in the comfort that ensues.

What Moore is offering here is a vision of what she calls the “secular sacred.” But what makes the book such a soul-soothing read is that we don't just learn what she means by “secular sacred” (“Secular: living in the world. Sacred: worthy of reverence and awe.”); we experience it with her. She points it out: “Is candlelight caught in a beer bottle any less the star-rimmed edge of an angel’s wing? The glass in the bottle is sand, fused by fire into something that still glitters. And what is sand?—black urchin spines, fallen stars, unimaginable time.” And then she invites us in: “If the universe is an unfolding bud, then I am a part of its creative surge, along with the flowing of water and the growing of pines. I can find a kind of camaraderie in the universe, once I recover from the astonishment of it. Or maybe not camaraderie exactly. What is the opposite of loneliness?” Because, when we take the time to notice, there’s so much to be thankful for: “We are called to live lives of gratitude, joy, and caring, profoundly moved by the bare fact that we live in the time of the singing birds.”

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010

MEMORY OF TREES: A Daughter’s Story of a Family Farm

Gayla Marty
University of Minnesota Press ($24.95)

by David Healy

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.

—Dylan Thomas, “Fern Hill”


The demise of the family farm has been well-documented: from 6.8 million in 1935 to 2.1 million in 2002. But numbers don’t tell the whole story; indeed, they don’t tell any story at all. For that, one needs to hear from the people involved.

Gayla Marty is one of those people, and her memoir is in part the story of how her family came to the decision to get out of farming. The Marty farm, located in east-central Minnesota, achieved century farm status in 1981. During Gayla’s childhood and adolescence, it was worked by her father and uncle.

The fact that Gayla’s father worked the farm with his brother was the family’s response to the premature death of her great-uncle Sam and the unsuitability of Sam’s son to take over. Gayla’s father would probably have gone to seminary, but keeping the family farm going was deemed more important—by him and everyone else—than pursuing his own calling.

By the next generation, that imperative had weakened. Gayla, the oldest child, had three brothers, two of whom—twins—demonstrated an aptitude for farm work, and it was generally assumed they would eventually take over for their father and uncle. Both boys went to college and studied agriculture, but they ended up getting married and taking other jobs. When the time came for them to step in and take over the family farm, neither was interested, nor was the youngest boy, nor Gayla’s cousins.

Gayla—who also had gone to college, married, and moved off the farm—was loathe to see it sold, but her husband didn’t fancy himself a farmer. So despite her deep misgivings, the family decided to sell most of their land to a neighboring farmer. In retrospect, Gayla came to see that decision as a predictable result of earlier choices. The first of those was to sell the farm’s hogs and concentrate exclusively on milking cows. Later, her father and uncle expanded their herd, built a new barn, and added equipment necessary to become a Grade A dairy operation. In short, the Marty farm became bigger and more specialized, and by the time Gayla realized she could do nothing to save it, she admitted, “I loved an old farm, a farm that no longer existed.”

That old farm was a place where trees had been cut to clear land for farming, but many remained—in woods the Martys owned and around the farmhouse. Gayla’s story is interspersed with vignettes of particular trees on the home place, and their resilience and rootedness come to represent Gayla herself as she struggles to find her place in a world without a church-like barn, without cows she knows by name, without the deep connection to a piece of land that nourished and sustained her family for generations.

The changing face of American agriculture is a story of land, but it is also a story of families, and this wise and lyrical memoir of one daughter’s story of a family farm is a portrait worth more than a thousand facts.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010

LAST LOOKS, LAST BOOKS: Stevens, Plath, Lowell, Bishop, Merrill

Helen Vendler
Princeton University Press ($19.95)

by John Cunningham

Given that her first choice of a career was not remotely related to English literature, it is remarkable that Helen Vendler has achieved the prominence she has as a literary critic. Her first avocation was chemistry, for which she earned an A.B. from Emmanuel College. Then, she was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship for mathematics, before earning her Ph.D. in English & American Literature from Harvard. Since 1981, she has been the A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard University. In 2007, Vendler was invited to deliver the A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts at the National Gallery of Art, and this, her latest book, is the result.

The lecture was subtitled “The Binocular Poetry of Death,” an apt description of the nature of this book. Beginning with the Irish custom whereby “when you find yourself bedridden, with death approaching, you rouse yourself with effort and, for the last time, make the rounds of your territory,” Vendler extends this practice to five poets—Wallace Stevens, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and James Merrill—stating that

In many lyrics, poets have taken, if not a last look, a very late look at the interface at which death meets life, and my topic is the strange binocular style they must invent to render the reality contemplated in that last look. The poet, still alive but aware of the imminence of death, wishes to enact that deeply shadowed but still vividly alert moment; but how can the manner of a poem do justice to both the looming presence of death and the unabated vitality of spirit? Although death is a frequent theme in European literature, any response to it used to be fortified by the belief in a personal afterlife. Yet as the conviction of the soul’s afterlife waned, poets had to invent what Wallace Stevens called “the mythology of modern death.”

Vendler completes her introduction by providing a comparison between two modern poems—Stevens’s “The Hermitage at the Centre” and Merrill’s “Christmas Tree”—and some earlier poems written during the period where less was questioned, including Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not Stop for Death,” George Herbert’s “Death,” Edmund Waller’s “Of the Last Verses in the Book,” and John Donne’s “Hymne to God My God, in My Sickness.” She has selected these poems to illustrate what she means by “a poem that wishes to be equally fair to both life and death at once,” arriving at the conclusion that “Each of these stylistic choices attempts in the end to be accurate and even-handed in its last looks: so much for life, so much for death. But in these Christian poems of faith, the balance is necessarily tipped, as we see, against death.”

In the second chapter, Vendler turns to the last poetry collection Stevens wrote, The Rock, after which he permitted Knopf to publish his Collected Poems, a summation he had resisted for years. Vendler describes his late work as follows:

In The Rock and in poems written too late for the Collected Poems, Stevens examined three chief premises about the last phase of being, when life faces death. The first two premises—that age is a paralytic stasis of the body and mind alike and that death is a biological horror—caused him anguish. His third premise, however, is that mortality confers a compensatory value on life.

She then proceeds to “take up all three premises, considering the different emotional pressures exerted on Stevens by each premise, and the poet’s consequent imaginative inventions of structure and style,” marshalling and explicating various poems in support of her thesis.

Vendler opens the chapter on Plath with a brief examination of the weaknesses of Plath’s juvenilia: “we can see that the chief danger to her style is restraint: formality encases her emotions. And yet her style was endangered equally—once she allowed emotion its freedom—by a theatricalizing melodrama. Both of these dangers always hovered over her poetry, and no one—as we can see in her journals and letters—was more aware of their perils than she.” Vendler claims that, by the time she was to write her last looks just preceding her suicide at age thirty, “we can trace her arrival, through a deepening mastery of technique, at a poetic strength absent in her earliest work.” The analysis is centered on Plath’s “Berck-Plage,” which according to Vendler will “illustrate both her inability to remove death from her poetry and her eventual success at integrating it stylistically with her aesthetic aims.” Her discussion of Plath’s death poems is vivid:

If we ask ourselves how Plath found a style with which to gather death and life into a single binocular view, we can reply that for her the task became specialized, since death was always before her eyes. She needed to discover a way to restore life to the skull, to put blood into the face of death . . . Her violence and melodrama were ways of waking Death up: to make a corpse stand up and do a striptease, to construct an ambulatory black boot over a dead foot . . . Plath’s poetry survives aesthetically because Death is so violently present that Life must take on a matching violence, but when their confrontation takes place in a present-tense personal moment, the result, in her mature work, is more a duel than a binocular comprehensiveness.

Vendler ends her look at this famously morbid poet with an epitaph: “She was always a posthumous person, but it took her years to acquire a posthumous style.”

The two inner chapters—on Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop—are the weakest of this exposition. Lowell’s approach to death is one Vendler characterizes as subtraction. And Bishop, the author admits, was not even aware of any impending death while writing her final poems—which raises a question as to why, other than that Bishop is a poet with whom Vendler is familiar, she would have been included within this thesis at all.

But any lapse of judgment is forgiven with the brilliant explications of James Merrill’s final poems contained in A Scattering of Salts. If you are unfamiliar with this poet’s work, then you’ll appreciate particularly the setting out in full of “Pearl”; Vendler’s condensation of this poem and how it relates to Merrill’s impending death from AIDS is a hard-won synthesis which can be applied to all of Merrill’s poetry in this final volume: “By preserving the presence of the insulted body in his self-portraits—however full of light or glimmering gems those poems may be—Merrill makes them credible performances of a being intensely alive yet aware of ghostly dissolution.”

Surprisingly, Vendler ends Last Looks with the chapter on Merrill, stating in the penultimate paragraph, “I return, as promised, to Merrill’s final self-portrait and his last self-symbol—the paradoxically alive/dead, organic/inorganic Christmas tree, retaining only half of its body, but still possessing a voice.” A recap drawing together the threads of the five poets examined would have been useful. Still, even with no dessert or palate cleanser, Last Looks, Last Books is an otherwise sumptuous banquet.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010


Sebastian Junger
Twelve ($26.99)

by Bob Sommer

In April of this year, U.S. military forces abandoned the five-year effort to control Afghanistan’s notorious and remote Korengal Valley. It wasn’t necessarily surprising that few Americans noticed; a brief and unceremonious NATO press release euphemistically described the move as a “realignment.” But then, this war has gone on for years without much attention paid by many, though Dancing with the Stars got a ratings boost that same month as Kate Gosselin kicked up her heels in living rooms throughout the land.

My son spent fifteen months in the so-called “Valley of Death” with a company from the 10th Mountain Division—the predecessors of the soldiers depicted in Sebastian Junger’s new book, War—so this quiet retreat from the Korengal, following an exhaustive and costly effort, seemed to me emblematic of how inconspicuously the war in Afghanistan has been waged.

Junger offers a close-up view of this invisible war through the experiences of a platoon from the 173rd Airborne Brigade over the course of a year. The outposts are remote, some occupied for weeks at a time by just a handful of soldiers who live under sparse conditions, in extreme heat or cold and alternating stretches of numbing boredom and ferocious violence. Describing one outpost, Junger writes:

The men at the outpost are dirty and unshaved and have been freezing up there quietly since they ran out of heating oil a week ago. In summer the post is overrun with camel spiders and scorpions but now it’s just cold and silent and lifeless, four men with nothing to do but stare at the mountains and recalculate how much of the deployment they still have left.

In the course of five trips to Afghanistan as an embedded reporter, Junger lived with the soldiers, trekked through the mountains of the Korengal, and witnessed and endured the dangers of battle, including the prospect of having an outpost overrun by Taliban fighters. The access he gained through this extraordinary commitment allows him to portray the American presence there from inside its very core, as the soldiers live it.

Junger deftly conveys their banal and weirdly humorous chatter (“If I start bangin’ your mom when we get home, will that mean I’m your dad?”), their plans for life after the service (“It’s guaranteed work because people die every day . . . People die and it’s, like, five hundred dollars a grave and you can dig five or six graves in a day.”), and the ways they deal with the imminence of death (“‘It’s okay to be scared,’ Moreno said to me, loud enough for everyone else to hear, ‘you just don’t want to show it . . . ’”).

He also explores the sense of loyalty that bonds these men to one another, emphasizing that their bond isn’t to a cause or policy but to the unit, the group, the man next to you, even if you detest him—because individuals won’t survive in the Korengal, but a team has a more than even chance. Every man knows that if he’s wounded or killed, he won’t be left behind, because he’s committed himself to leaving no one else behind.

Junger’s narrative mostly avoids politics—or it attempts to create that impression. In fact, the general assumption among the soldiers that Junger supports the (then) Bush administration’s policies in Afghanistan accounts for his ability to gain acceptance. “If you imagined,” he writes, “that your job, as a reporter, was to buddy up to the troops and tell the ‘real’ story of how they were dying in a senseless war, you were in for a surprise. The commanders would realize you were operating off a particular kind of cultural programming and would try to change your mind, but the men wouldn’t bother. They’d just refuse to talk to you until you left their base.”

One might believe, reading War, that every soldier supports the administration’s Afghanistan policy too, but in fact soldiers have a legal obligation not to disagree publicly with their Commander-in-Chief. So it’s not surprising that the consensus among those Junger interviewed is to get behind the policy. Besides, well-trained and well-equipped Taliban fighters are everywhere in the Korengal—the policy has a logic of its own when you’re in that position. And unlike the war in Vietnam, Junger reminds us, “Afghanistan . . . was being fought by volunteers who more or less respected their commanders and had the gratitude of the vast majority of Americans back home.”

Junger does sketch in the context for how Americans came to be fighting in the Korengal, which begins with a tangled story of tribal disputes over the lumber trade and raises questions about the rationale for waging war there at all. American forces first entered the Korengal Valley in 2005, with the ill-advised, strategically foolish, and ultimately tragic insertion of a team of Navy Seals. The only survivor of that mission, Marcus Luttrell, was awarded the Navy Cross. He recounted his experience in a self-serving and bitter memoir, Lone Survivor, in which blaming liberals and “the liberal media” for his team members’ deaths becomes a kind of a mantra.

But history and politics are background noise that’s beyond hearing distance to the men at Korengal Outpost. What amps them up, Junger finds, is the discomfiting reality that war is thrilling. Says one soldier, “Combat is such an adrenaline rush . . . I’m worried I’ll be looking for that when I get home and if I can’t find it, I’ll just start drinking and getting in trouble. People back home think we drink because of the bad stuff, but that’s not true . . . we drink because we miss the good stuff.” Says another on firing the .50-caliber machine gun: “I don’t know if it’s true, but they say the round only has to come within eighteen inches of you to sear flesh. That’s badass. It doesn’t have to hit you and it can still tear you open. It’s just a sexy weapon. It’s the ultimate machine gun. It has the ability to shoot through walls. It’s fun to shoot during a test fire but it’s twice as fun during a firefight.”

Indeed, Junger himself notes: “War is a lot of things and it’s useless to pretend that exciting isn’t one of them. It’s insanely exciting.” He often plays to this excitement, and it will, no doubt, appeal to some readers. The tone and cadence of his narrative are sometimes reminiscent of the enthusiasm of embedded reporters who appeared on all the networks at the outset of the Iraq war.

War does not portray the civilian tragedies of our engagements in the Middle East, nor the impact on military families, nor does it attempt to understand the American presence there as Afghans see it. They rather move about in a kind of background fog. Junger also places himself too much at the center of the narrative at times, which creates the impression that he’s there so he can describe his experience of going there. I would contrast his book, in this respect, to David Maraniss’s fine book about the Vietnam War,They Marched into Sunlight, which tells the soldiers’ stories while absenting the author from the narrative.

But War succeeds in portraying the experience of war and its impact on one small group of soldiers, which is what Junger set out to do. It has helped me better understand my son’s experiences in Afghanistan. Perhaps it will also make more Americans question the long-term consequences of the wars we have undertaken as a nation, now that the thrill is—at least for most of us—gone.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010

A DECADE OF NEGATIVE THINKING: Essays on Art, Politics, and Daily Life

Mira Schor
Duke University Press ($24.95)

by Sheila Dickinson

Mira Schor’s introduction to A Decade of Negative Thinking frames her perspective nicely. Living blocks from Ground Zero in Manhattan, a cloud of negativity hanging dustily over this past decade, she admits to the reader that she looks for the sub-par in art, primarily because she believes the art industry won’t admit to the real drudgery of swimming through all the bad art out there. At her best, Schor is able to read against the grain, providing an opposing analysis to the dominant consensus of what is important and what has become influential in art. She seeks and brings out the minor, the overlooked, the modest, and the in-between.

The book’s weaknesses are due mostly to Schor’s complaining tone about the disregard for painting in the art world. This is not necessarily a bad thing—painting can use a defender at a time when literally anything can be used in an artwork—but painting can no longer reign like it once did. In contrast to Schor, Roberta Smith, who has written some scathing art reviews for The New York Times, has a more inclusive and pluralistic view of art and a spirit of openness and hospitality to all art media. Where Schor can see only a regurgitation of “trite tropes” and an influx of too many bad artists making “recipe art,” Smith has recently opined that there is “the distinct possibility that quantity and quality may not be so mutually exclusive. More means more better.” 1

Schor’s resistance to change in media colors her writing to suggest a resistance to all change, an odd trait for a feminist. She has long said that women can make meaningful marks in painting, most notably in her 1997 book Wet: On Painting, Feminism and Art Culture. This new book, however, lacks the theoretical depth of Wet. The chapters here are short, referencing panel discussions, blogs, letters, and amateur art, leaving little room for in-depth analysis. Furthermore, Schor’s prose lacks charm—she fails to tell the kinds of stories that would bring the viewer around to her perspective. Instead she creates list after list of artists making crappy art, which feels strange to read because it merely describes what to avoid rather than illuminating the good and influential.

In the first section of the book, aptly titled “She Said, She Said: Feminist Debates, 1971-2009,” Schor lambasts young women artists who refuse to pronounce themselves as feminist. It is rooted in a personal account of her traumatic, life-altering experiences at the Feminist Art Program at Cal Arts from 1971-1972, led by Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro, and even concludes with her personal letters to friends and teachers from her time at Cal Arts. In a brief introduction to the abridged letters of her younger self, she admits there might be contradictions between what she wrote back in the ’70s and what she thinks today, but she does not seem to have reconciled these contradictions. Lacking a self-reflexive quality to what might be memoir material, she asks the reader, “What would the young woman think of her older self?”

Unfortunately, one suspects this young Mira Schor might say exactly the same thing about her older self that she said about Judy Chicago in 1971—“She projects upon us [her students] bitterness and anger”—except the older Schor projects it onto young women artists lacking the same feminist conviction she once lacked herself. Her letters from Cal Arts reveal a student who resisted indoctrination by her established mentors, especially Chicago, so it’s surprising she isn’t more empathetic toward young women artists today who might feel conflicted and confused when interested but unsure about feminism.

This absence of compassion plays out repeatedly. It’s funny and strange how Schor concludes several chapters with disbelief, defensiveness, irritation, and frustration over the refusal of young women artists to stand up and proudly pronounce themselves feminists. Schor wants these women not just to value the work of feminist artists before them, but to continue to fight the good fight. Indeed, the whole section becomes a “she said, she said,” stoking the embers of a dying fire.

Still, while such traits will lead many readers to find her book disappointing, Schor stayed entrenched in the battle and deservedly gets to sound off about what is happening today around feminism in art. It’s just too bad more people aren’t on her side, that she is somewhat stranded in the middle generation she terms “2.5,” between second- and third-wave feminist art movements. She justly argues this group has been looked over, and it is time for us to take notice.

1 Roberta Smith, “Make Room for Video, Performace and Paint,” New York Times (Jan 3, 2010): 24.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010

MYTHMAKERS AND LAWBREAKERS: Anarchist Writers on Fiction

Edited by Margaret Killjoy
AK Press ($12)
by Niels Strandskov

It can be bittersweet when an idea that has hitherto existed only as an oral tradition, or in private correspondence, or as an allusion in another format, becomes suddenly codified and concretized into a solid work of reference. In Mythmakers and Lawbreakers, a collection of interviews with writers who give a sympathetic hearing to anarchist ideas, Margaret Killjoy has undoubtedly made a great contribution to the study of the artistic influence on and of anarchism, and yet it feels a little strange to see this previously secret knowledge shared with those outside the activist demimonde.

Killjoy has assembled a comprehensive selection of interview subjects. Ursula K. LeGuin, Michael Moorcock, Starhawk, Lewis Shiner, and Alan Moore represent the long-established anarchist tendency within the genres of fantasy and science fiction. Newer voices like Cristy C. Road, Crimethinc., and Carissa van den Berk Clark offer a glimpse at how anarchist fiction is transcending its usual utopian/dystopian boundaries to provide a vital critique of contemporary society.

As might be expected from any group of anarchists and fellow travelers this large, there is little consensus about what anarchism means, who anarchists are, what anarchist fiction can be, and how best to produce and distribute those ideas. Despite their differences—and it’s a testament to the diversity of the anarchist tradition that individuals as widely separated as Alan Moore and Derrick Jensen can both reasonably be said to belong to it—it seems as though most of the writers agree with Kim Stanley Robinson’s exhortation from his introduction: “In the meantime, we have to constantly work; resist capitalism; interrogate our own actions; and speak out against the current order, for something better.”

In her interview with Jensen, best known for his non-fiction polemics, Killjoy explores a crucial question: what’s the point of writing, and writing fiction at that, if the goal is to build a new society before the current one collapses? True to form, Jensen restates the question before offering an equivocation: “And so, is my work helping to save the salmon? I don’t know. And that’s a tremendous source of frustration.”

Other writers in the collection are less troubled by that apparent contradiction. In her interview, Starhawk defends the practice of anarchist fiction. “The larger culture is not going to reflect the counterculture that we build, but I think it’s important for us to have those kinds of reflections, to create those kinds of reflections. To use fiction—which is a very powerful tool—for confronting some of those major issues we confront.”

Killjoy addresses many of the other concerns of anarchist writers—how to disseminate radical information through capitalist distribution networks, how to balance imparting ideology and the demands of good writing, how to stay engaged with a fractious and protean milieu—subtly and with humor. Her interviews with some of the pseudonymous and/or group identity authors are engagingly surreal.

Perhaps the only serious flaw in the collected interviews is that some of them are so short. Killjoy’s questions are very concise, and the answers she elicits are generally lucid and to-the-point. Given the assembled talent, it would have been exciting to see more digressions and detailed exposition of the various works discussed, since so few of the authors have been interviewed at length elsewhere about their anarchism and its relationship to their works.

Rounding out the volume are three appendices. Appendix A provides brief biographies of ninety-eight current and historical authors who were anarchists or who influenced the development of anarchist fiction. Appendix B contains twenty-two similar biographies of non-anarchist authors of interest to readers of anarchist fiction. And Appendix C is split up into four categories: stories that explore anarchist societies; stories that fictionalize anarchist history; stories that feature sympathetic anarchist characters; and stories that feature anarchists as villains. For the dedicated reader of anarchist fiction, this appendix is almost as useful as the main text, although it does take some of the fun out of comparing notes with fellow enthusiasts or stumbling across a surprise at the used bookstore.

Killjoy’s book, though very comprehensive, will hopefully serve as a prod to other authors, journalists, and theorists to begin an even more exhaustive cataloging and investigation of this under-examined but ever fruitful category of literature. Losing a little in-group cachet would be a small price to pay for a discussion of anarchist fiction that could reach a larger audience and prompt more fiction writers to explore anarchist ideas.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010


Jean Baudrillard
translated by Chris Turner
Seagull Books ($17)

by W. C. Bamberger

In this brief book, completed just two months before his death in March 2007, noted theorist Jean Baudrillard takes yet another look at a long-time theme: the disappearance of the real. “Let us speak, then, of the world from which human beings have disappeared” opens the book. For Baudrillard, human beings began to disappear when they began to analyze the world scientifically. He brings in Hannah Arendt’s idea that such analysis seeks to come from an “Archimedian point,” a point “outside the world . . . by which the natural world is definitively alienated.”

Baudrillard’s observation is that to analyze or categorize anything is to push away the very thing one intends to capture by bringing such precision to bear. “By their exceptional faculty for knowledge, human beings, while giving meaning, value and reality to the world, at the same time begin a process of dissolution (‘to analyse’ means literally ‘to dissolve’).” This dissolution, he claims, is of the bond between things and their “brute reality.”

Embroidering this basic theme, the most interesting tangent Baudrillard develops is that with the unlimited pervasiveness of technology, “both mental and material,” we are now capable of fulfilling all our potentialities. But once we achieve this fulfillment we begin to disappear, because as human beings have become “purely operational,” or one with our technical means. Thus the world “no longer has need of our representation,” and the bond between people and the world dissolves. This is, for Baudrillard, an unusually explicit statement of the idea that we and the world are both active participants in our long-time bonding. This idea is reinforced by his equation of disappearance-by-fulfillment with disappearance-by-death, “as though that destiny were programmed somewhere and we were merely the long-term executants of the programme.” That is, Baudrillard suggests there exists a teleology that treats us as a disposable catalyst: once we have achieved oneness with the analytical, we are no longer needed. And he sees the good in this, noting that “the dissolution of values, of the real, of ideologies, of ultimate ends” reveals the world as it is.

Another subject Baudrillard concerns himself with at length here is the disappearance of traditional (light to negative to print) photography, which he finds a perfect snapshot of what is happening to “the world of the mind and the whole range of thought.” Digital photography, because of its binary construct of 0 and 1, eliminates the “entire symbolic articulation of language and thought”; it thus allows the world to bypass human intervention, to produce itself as “pure trace.” This, for Baudrillard, is of crucial interest—“for, if there is one supreme product of the human mind, that product is truth and objective reality.” The book includes a number of “images” by Alain Willaume, many of which appear to be digitally manipulated photographs, so we can read Baudrillard’s evaluation of such technology and experience it at the same time.

While one may have lingering doubts as to whether this text was truly finished before Baudrillard’s death, the ideas are interesting and the translation compelling, despite the book’s brevity. As in previous works, Baudrillard doesn’t always make his definitions or transitions explicit, and he often leaves the reader feeling there is a paradox lurking close by. Yet the argument comes through clearly, and the implications are there for us to realize, if we wish—for example, that “truth,” “objective reality,” and even “the real” are only human ideas, and the world has no use for them.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010


Stephen Burt and David Mikics
Harvard University Press ($35)

by James Naiden

Stephen Burt and David Mikics, both English professors (Burt at Harvard, Mikics at the University of Houston), have here created a most ambitious literary compendium, providing a brief history of this form of poetry before launching full steam into their main presentation: one hundred sonnets, each with an evaluative essay by either professor. The range is wide and mostly from poets writing in English, from Thomas Wyatt’s 1557 sonnet “Whoso list to hunt” to D. A. Powell’s “corydon & alexis, redux” from 2009.

Burt and Mikics have chosen highly intriguing examples in the sonnet’s long history, and the essays are generally urbane and highly informative. Amidst poets you’ve probably never heard of there are also many recognizable names. The sonnets that follow are usually only fourteen lines, the traditional length, as is Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 2” from 1609, seven years before his death. Look for the volta, or turn, about line eight or nine:

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery, so gazed on now,
Will be a tatter’d weed of small worth held:
Then being asked where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasury of thy lusty days,
To say within thine own deep sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame, and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserv’d thy beauty’s use
If thou could’st answer, “This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse,”
Proving his beauty by succession thine.
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.

Mikics explains why this poet is unique: “Shakespeare revolutionized the sonnet in several ways. The Italian poets divided their sonnets into two uneven units, the eight-line octave followed by the six-line sestet. Shakespeare built his sonnets differently, as three block-like quatrains (four-line units) followed by a couplet.” Both professors contribute revealing, edifying essays around their choices; what might be called now the “back story” inhabits each sonnet, each poet’s life, many with facts not widely known about the circumstances during composition.

Charlotte Smith’s 1798 sonnet “Huge vapours brood above the clifted shore” depicts her fears about the sea, about political upheaval in France, and her own unhappy marriage (she and her husband had been imprisoned for debt). Her sonnet was also borne of her subsequent ability to get out of debt by becoming a very successful novelist and poet. How many could do that now?

Huge vapours brood above the clifted shore,
Night o’er the ocean settles, dark and mute,
Save where is heard the repercussive roar
of drowsy billows, on the rugged foot . . .

Smith was not well known by the general populace after her death, but that her voice endures—if only for a single poem in this book—is testament that she took the events of her own time seriously. A contemporary of Jane Austen, Smith was well aware of the vagaries of time, love, and fortune: all can vanish just as one beholds them. Other English poets of this era—William Wordsworth, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge—are well represented here, too. Burt and Mikics each contribute intriguing explications of their most famous sonnets, such as Shelley’s “England in 1819” (which his sister found long after his death) and, earlier, “Ozymandias.”

One would be remiss in not mentioning Elizabeth Barrett’s lovely sonnet on learning that her friend and fellow poet, Robert Browning, loved her—as he told her in a letter. “Sonnets from the Portuguese 28” and Burt’s accompanying essay give the reader a good sense of Barrett’s milieu and emotions, once she realized she did not have to obey her father’s insistence that none of his children marry. She eloped to Italy with Browning, eventually bore a son, and had sixteen good years of marriage before dying in 1861. The emotions gleaned in her sonnet should give heart to those so tested or fraught with love’s upheaval in our own or any era.

Another poet, devastated by what he’d seen in the American Civil War and by his own ill health, is Henry Timrod. Born in South Carolina in 1828, well educated but tubercular and frail, he wrote movingly two years after the Confederate defeat. His sonnet “I know not why, but all this weary day” is a strong testament to life’s essential unfairness. He died shortly after writing it.

In the early twentieth century, sonneteers such as Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Thomas Hardy receive appropriate representation here. One poet relatively unknown because of his short life was Trumbull Stickney, whose 1905 effort “Mt. Lykaion” may well have been a response to Keats’s “On First Seeing The Elgin Marbles,” as Mikics explains. Here are Stickney’s opening lines:

Alone on Lykaion since man hath been
Stand on the height two columns, where at rest
Two eagles hewn of gold sit looking East
Forever; and the sun goes up between.

As Mikics posits, Stickney may well have been suffering from a brain tumor that caused faintness and partial blindness; he died at thirty. Knowing that Keats had defied the gods by trammeling on the venerated mountain as well, Stickney’s concluding couplet is forceful:

Suck out my heart, and on this awful ground
The great wind kill my little shell with sound.

The Art of the Sonnet has many examples of poets writing in great difficulty—Ivor Gurney, Hart Crane, and Elinor Wylie stand out. Others such as W. H. Auden, Edward Arlington Robinson, Yvor Winters, and Wallace Stevens wrote brilliant sonnets and other forms of verse without undue personal stress, apparently, and were deservedly lauded. Here is what Stevens wrote on a postcard to Harriet Monroe, Poetry’s founding editor, under the title “Nomad Exquisite.” He sent it to Monroe from Florida in 1923 while on a visit there:

As the immense dew of Florida
Brings forth
The big-finned palm
And green vine angering for life,

As the immense dew of Florida
Brings forth hymn and hymn
From the beholder,
Beholding all these green sides
And gold sides of green sides,

And blessed mornings,
Meet for the eye of the young alligator,
And lightning colors
So, in me, come flinging
Forms, flames, and the flakes of flames.

Among more recent poets represented are Louise Bogan, James K. Baxter (from New Zealand), Elizabeth Bishop, A. D. Hope (Australian), Tony Harrison (English), Rosanna Warren, and the playful, incisive Alison Brackenbury with her 2004 “Homework. Write A Sonnet. About Love?” She reveals a wise, perceptive heart and a perspicacious sense of humor. Of course, many of these poets, as Burt and Mikics point out, do not write traditional sonnets. Paul Muldoon, a poet from Northern Ireland who has lived and taught for some years in the U.S., contributes a fine depiction from his volume Horse Latitudes about urban chafing in the era of the Iraq War. His sonnet is titled “Starlings, Broad Street, Trenton, 2003.” It’s not conventional, but well worth reading.

If you want to know about the sonnet, how it came about and has evolved over the last eight centuries, this elegant book will be invaluable many times over.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010