Polity

Interventions 2020 by Michel Houellebecq, translated by Andrew Brown

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May 2022, no. 442

Michel Houellebecq has never been one to hide his light under a bushel. Since the publication of his second and best-known novel, Atomised, in 1998 (the same year some of the pieces included in Interventions 2020 were originally published in French), Houellebecq has established himself as the enfant terrible of French letters, primarily through his provocative and at times incendiary remarks. Indeed, there is a certain expectation that Houellebecq will live up to his reputation, something he notes in his reflections on paedophilia: ‘Through the wording of your questions, I feel I am subtly being asked to say something politically incorrect.’ Rarely does he disappoint.

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Theory of what?’ is the obvious lay response to Philipp Felsch’s title. But for those in the know, it goes without saying that he is talking about Theory with a capital T. That strange hybrid of philosophy, ethnology, and literary criticism cast its spell over participants in the student movement in Germany from the mid-1960s and in Paris after 1968. In the 1980s and 1990s, it reached the humanities departments of Anglophone academia, making a PhD dissertation without a Theory component a risky undertaking. This applied even in history, traditionally the most empirical of disciplines; and in 1994, Keith Windschuttle, soon to be prominent in the Australian ‘history wars’ about the interpretation of European colonisation, was provoked to write a whole book entitled The Killing of History: How a discipline is being murdered by literary critics and social theorists.

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After Lockdown: A metamorphosis by Bruno Latour, translated by Julie Rose

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December 2021, no. 438

Bruno Latour’s new book, After Lockdown: A metamorphosis, is so engaging from the first that one feels obliged to begin just where he does: with an arresting portrait of a man who wakes from a long sleep to find that everything, save the moon and its indifferent rotations, makes him uneasy. Everywhere he sees reminders of the lost innocence of the Anthropocene. The sun brings to mind global warming; the trees, deforestation; the rain, drought. Nothing in the landscape offers solace. Pollution has left its mark everywhere, and he feels vaguely responsible for it all. And now, to top it off, the very breath that sustains his life carries the risk of premature death. How many of his neighbours might he infect (or be infected by) amid the vapour trails of his evening walk? Nature, it seems, is having its revenge, and the ‘in-out-in’ of lockdown threatens to become interminable.

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With the possible exception of Jean Baudrillard or Anthony Giddens, it is difficult to think of a contemporary sociologist who has rivalled the international intellectual standing, as well as global fame, of the late Zygmunt Bauman. In his subtle, worldly intelligence, his interdisciplinary engagement, and his poetic cast of mind, Bauman stands out as one of the most influential social thinkers of our time. A distinguished heir to the tradition of radical Marxist criticism, his writings tracked the political contradictions, cultural pressures, and emotional torments of modernity with a uniquely agile understanding. With his scathing critical pen and brilliant socio logical investigations, Bauman unearthed major institutional transformations in capitalism, culture, and communication in a language that disdained all academic boundaries, crossing effortlessly from Marx to mobile phones, from Gramsci to globalisation, and from postmodernism to the privatisation of prisons.

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Borrowing a term coined by the late Jewish Nobel Laureate and vegetarian Isaac Bashevis Singer, Charles Patterson (in)famously likened humanity’s treatment of animals to an ‘eternal Treblinka’. In his 2001 book of the same name, Patterson set the mass murder of Europe’s Jews and industrialised animal slaughter side by side, drawing a line between the production methods of Chicago’s early twentieth-century slaughterhouses, the assembly-line technology pioneered by Henry Ford – an avowed anti-Semite and Hitler supporter – and the death camps of Nazi Germany. Another Jewish writer, the German philosopher Theodor Adorno, is said to have observed that ‘Auschwitz begins whenever someone looks at a slaughterhouse and thinks: they’re only animals’.

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Today’s transgender community is woefully ignorant of its past, beholden to ‘historical amnesia’ and the ‘erasure of much trans history’ – or so Barry Reay would have us believe. Reay, a prolific historian of sexuality at the University of Auckland, begins his new history, Trans America, by decrying the supposed trans failure to look to the past, before setting about the task of correcting, as he puts it, ‘the significant structural and conceptual weaknesses in trans history’.

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Cinema by Alain Badiou, translated by Susan Spitzer

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December 2013–January 2014, no. 357

In recent years, the work of French philosopher Alain Badiou has been discussed with increasing regularity as part of an academic dialogue between cinema studies and philosophy that is often called ‘film-philosophy’. His various writings on cinema were for a long time scattered among many different sources, the majority untranslated. With its original 2010 French version and now this English translation, Cinema has finally changed all that. Containing thirty-one different pieces, all but five appearing in English for the first time, this important book offers a unique contemporary philosopher’s rich, varied, yet always coherent and evolving response to cinema spanning seven decades.

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Derrida: A Biography by Benoît Peeters, translated by Andrew Brown

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November 2013, no. 356

By what right, and in accordance with what set of social conditions or teleological commitments, ideologies, cultural and biographical conventions, and in whose name might one begin to speak of, formulate, detail, or analyse the life of Jackie aka ‘Jacques’ Derrida?

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Since well before the global financial crash of 2008, there has been pessimism about the future of the book in an age of new paradigms: electronic transmission and gadgetry, all thus far untested, in a screen culture age. This uncertainty still hovers, like a pungent doom-cloud, despite the furious conversion of new and backlist files into multiple formats in publishing houses everywhere in readiness for the e-revolution. This is expensive and time-consuming work, done in good faith as an investment for the future. One by-product has been a chilling realisation that file archiving is poorly managed by many houses and that finding print-ready files of backlist books to convert to e-format isn’t as easy as was anticipated.

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Echo Chamber by Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Joseph N. Cappella & Why Democracies Need an Unlovable Press by Michael Schudson

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February 2009, no. 308

One of the first books I read about news and politics was a lively British volume edited by Richard Boston, called The Press We Deserve (1970). In it, he quoted a recent speech by the Duke of Edinburgh reciting all the standard clichés about the role a free press played in sustaining democracy. On the contrary, Boston argued, a newspaper such as the News of the World is about as helpful to democracy as an outbreak of typhoid. It may, he said, be the price of democracy, but that was a rather different proposition.

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