Book review: Sartre – Philosophy in an Hour by Paul Strathern

Sartre: Philosophy in an HourSartre: Philosophy in an Hour by Paul Strathern

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So little time to give meaning to life.

The Philosophy in an Hour series is written to give a brief overview of a philosopher’s life, some key points about their work, and a recommended reading list for more insights. This Jean-Paul Sartre instalment covers the famous existentialist, some anecdotes about his life, particularly as it relates to his open relationship with Simone de Beauvoir, and the barest of insights into his contributions to philosophy.

Having started down the road of philosophical learning with Soren Kirkegaard several years ago, I was well overdue to read some Sartre. I’m not sure this is the place I should have started. While it was conveniently available from my local library, it was somewhat lacking.

While I do appreciate the biographical aspects that appear to be part and parcel of every philosophy course and textbook, this is where Strathern starts to inject his views on Sartre. He continues to do this in his thoughts on Sartre’s work.* When Bertrand Russell does this it comes across as witty, snarky, and probably deserved. When Strathern does it he comes across as childish and distracting.

I think my biggest criticism was that this book felt lacking in substance and critical insights. I was probably after something a little more substantial as an overview, along the lines of a university lecture. For those wanting a short biographical overview with a few ideas sprinkled in, this would probably hit the mark.

* E.g. He mockingly describes Sartre’s existentialism and his insights. Strathern describes Sartre as a brilliant thinker, but also a pretentious windbag. One way he did this was by saying Sartre spent 1933 in Germany studying the ”phenomena” of existence. That was the year Adolf Hitler came to power, but Sartre was too busy pondering existence to take much notice of reality, a condition that stayed with him for the rest of his life. An easy criticism to make but also an ignorant one if you understand that Berlin was a mecca for thinkers, cultures, and artists until after Hitler came to power.

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Book review: Game of Mates by Cameron Murray and Paul Frijters

Game of Mates: How Favours Bleed the NationGame of Mates: How Favours Bleed the Nation by Cameron Murray

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don’t want to see the final season of Game of Mates, I’ve heard the entire thing falls flat.

Cameron Murray and Professor Paul Frijters set out to expose the inner workings of the Australian economy in Game of Mates. Through a series of case studies, they outline how a few (the Jameses) take from the many (the Bruces) by blurring the line between business and the regulators. Then, knowing that their readers will be suitably gobsmacked and annoyed, call for the masses (Bruces) to make a change.

As with any book about real-life grifting in the halls of power, this book made me annoyed and disillusioned. There is nothing more galling than to have someone show you how the grift is endemic and then realise you kinda knew. We kinda all know. There is no surprise here. And that means there is no “justice”. Cue scene of me staring out the window as rain drips down it.

Murray and Frijters conclude with some ways to stop the grift:

1) Reclaim the value of grey gifts for the public.
Essentially, when the grifters rig the system they gift themselves advantage/money/power. We have to tear that down. One example was Public-Private Partnerships on infrastructure developments, which essentially end up being a gift of public assets to private businesses with a guaranteed profit underwritten by the public.

2) Disrupt (James’) the grifters’ coordination.
This is fairly obvious, stop the revolving door between public and private interests, put in oversight, make sure the oversight isn’t part of the problem, etc.

3) Bust the myths (James) the grifters use.
This isn’t just about addressing the claims cherry-picked “experts” will make, such as promoting projects that aren’t needed (examples are given, there are plenty). This is also about reclaiming the narrative from these grifters. In Australia, this is particularly difficult as many of the media outlets are either owned or have close links to the same people grifting.

4) Fight back.
Disillusion can lead to apathy. That’s what keeps us on the losing end.

Speaking of the losing end, the costs of this game are:

  • New Housing – 70% of the gains from rezoning;
  • Transportation infrastructure – 68% of the investment;
  • Superannuation – 27% gobbled up;
  • Mining – 48% of the profits;
  • Banking – 60% more expensive for the masses;
  • Taxes – 23% extra taxation borne by the masses (I’ve seen a figure suggesting this is a global issue and sees the average person taxed proportionally more);
  • Pharmacies, medicines, and health – 10% more expensive;
  • Higher education – 100% more expensive…

Okay, so clearly this book hit the mark and is enlightening. Why only three stars, I hear someone say? Well, while I appreciate your question, I’m wondering what you’re doing in my house.

I think the problem I had with this book was the polemic style to it. We are told. I listed the figures above, and whilst those numbers are backed up, they are big claims that require fairly solid evidence. I felt the evidence was a bit flimsy. Not wrong, but maybe selective, or misrepresentative.

Another example was around how to stop the revolving door which amounted to banning people from getting a different job in the same industry. That’s probably not as well thought out as it needs to be.

Game of Mates is worth reading but it felt underdone.

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Book review: The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

The Communist ManifestoThe Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The only thing you have to lose is your car keys. And chains.

“The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.”

The Communist Manifesto was part of my reading project to have some actual knowledge about the current bogeymen of cultural discourse. How could it not be? Various (sarcasm alert) intellectual giants, including Canadian self-help gurus and fake universities, have blamed Marx personally – poor Engels, always the bridesmaid, never the bride – and communism generally for every malady of the last 150 years. Obviously, they would know this after having studiously analysed the Manifesto… oh, and all of the hundreds of other texts on the subject.

What struck me about this text is how it captures a few essences of society, both then and now, with an insight that resonates. But it also manages to feel immature and underdeveloped compared to the later writings from Marx and Engels. From my further reading, this appears to be a common criticism.

There were interesting insights into women’s and workplace rights. These ideas from Marx and Engels’ have had to be implemented in our society. They realised that a capitalistic society couldn’t function the way it did. So those changes have been implemented. And it took social and union movements to make our society function, but not the communist revolution Marx and Engels expected.

Another interesting aspect was the definition of bourgeoise socialists. The idea of people advocating for small manageable changes to gradually improve society sounded an awful lot like centrist liberals or socially conscious millionaires/billionaires. They will admit the system is rigged and that it is unfair, but do you honestly expect them to sleep on less than 800 thread count sheets? Who is the real victim here?*

That isn’t to say there aren’t valid criticisms of the Manifesto. As an example, people like Sloterdijk have criticised Communism for channelling rage from their life in the direction of an “other” – in this case, the rich/capitalists. This rage is channelled by the ruling class of the communist movement and used to empower themselves. I.e. it becomes just another control mechanism, exchanging one oppressive power for another.

But it is clear from the Manifesto that this is/was not the intention. Something many critics miss.** Marx refused to speculate in detail about the nature of communism, arguing that it would arise through historical processes, and was not the realisation of a pre-determined moral ideal. Maybe this was a fatal flaw in his thinking, such that if he had been more prescriptive his writings wouldn’t have been used by authoritarian/totalitarian people to seize power.

There has been a lot of academic and scholastic work on Marxism since The Communist Manifesto. But this short work still remains a worthwhile read.

* See my review of Winners Take All.

** And let’s be honest, it is deliberately missed. Communism is the “other” of the 20th century. They were the evil we could rally together to defeat. So actual understanding of communism has been deliberately negatively framed. “Look at all those starving people under communism! Ignore all the starving people under capitalism!”

See my review of Socialism a Short Introduction.

Further reading: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/marx/

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Book review: The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley

The Geek Feminist RevolutionThe Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Beastie Boys said you gotta fight for your right to… exist?

The Geek Feminist Revolution is a collection of Kameron Hurley’s essays that tie to the themes of feminism, representation in media, and not putting up with bullshit. Some of the essays also discuss being an author and all the fun that entails.

After finishing this collection I feel remiss for not having read any of Hurley’s work previously. I picked up a copy from the library after my sister recommended it to me – it’s literally the only title they have of Kameron’s. Hurley is passionate, often angry, and always eyeing off ways to make the world suck a little less.

It is difficult to go into specifics given the range of topics covered. Some highlights were around the 20-30% figure and women’s erasure from “the narrative” of history. That statistic is the fairly consistent proportion of women involved in conflicts throughout history. They have always fought, but that is not the way history is told to us. The concept of a dominant narrative that suits and reinforces ruling social structures is not new to me, but one I don’t feel I’ve heard enough about, making it always welcome in my reading. The insights on being a speculative fiction author were also excellent.

The only aspect that I didn’t enjoy in this collection was that it was a tad repetitive. That is to be expected with a collection of previously published essays. There’s bound to be a bit of overlap.

A very interesting collection of essays, particularly for those interested in speculative fiction and pop-culture.

Your voice is powerful. Your voice has meaning. If it didn’t, people wouldn’t work so hard to silence you.
Remember that.

 

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Book review: Kill All Normies by Angela Nagle

Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-RightKill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right by Angela Nagle

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

“Your mild demands made me become a Nazi.”

In Kill All Normies, Angela Nagle attempts to document and explain the rise of the Alt-Right out of the online space and into the Oval Office. She discusses many of the toxic forums and their leading mouthpieces and their war against the left/liberals in their forums/safe-spaces.

This book hit my TBR list as it was highly recommended and one of the few to document the online culture that lead to the rise of a change in political and social discourse worldwide. Having existed online and been familiar with many of the “players”, I was hoping for some deeper insights and analysis of how these forums become toxic and how that spreads out.

Let’s just say that this is not the book I was hoping for.

For much of Kill All Normies, I found myself thinking that I don’t just disagree with many of the points made, but that Nagle gets many things factually incorrect or offers up a very poor understanding of points raised.* If I was unfamiliar with much of the material, this book would have been very misleading. Just one example of this, in a later chapter Nagle refers to Germaine Greer being de-platformed over transphobic comments, to which she claims Greer hadn’t written about trans-issues in 15 years. That’s blatantly false. In fact, worse, it is a lie from transphobic sources that this book is meant to be, in part, critiquing.

This article offers a few more examples, including the Greer example. Another accuses her of plagiarism. Apparently, Nagle and Zero Books (her publisher) had both offered rebuttals to these pieces, but they are now dead links.

Another problem I had with Kill All Normies was that a lot of Nagle’s expressed opinions seemed to utilise the terms of reference used by those she was supposedly exposing. But only in one direction. For example, when Nagle criticised the online misogynists she would treat their claims as having merit, but when she was criticising the multiple genders of Tumblr** they were treated as though they didn’t have merit.

There was also a level of misrepresentation or laziness in the accurate portrayal of several events mentioned. One of the above-linked articles discusses a Jordan Peterson example. I noted an egregious one about Milo Yiannopoulos. The Berkley campus protests that shut down Milo’s talk supposedly shows an unwillingness to engage him in debate and challenge his ideas, instead resorting to shutting down free speech… Except that’s revisionist nonsense that ignores several hard facts. Milo wasn’t actually available for a debate, he was there to lecture and browbeat unprepared audience members during Q&A. Given that these examples were key to Nagle’s argument about how these bad ideas should be addressed and challenged with the liberal idea of debate and free speech and the market place of ideas and… Well, that might be a tad hard to do when you don’t get to have any free speech other than protests outside the venue.

There were also several things I felt were lacking in the coverage of the online culture wars. Very little was said about the atheist and skeptic YouTube movements that are noted for their early adoption of anti-SJW and anti-feminist stances. This is especially important given many are seen as gateways to the Alt-Right, often platform Alt-Right figures, and would fit the definition of Alt-Lite. I mean, Carl “Sargon” Benjamin even went into politics with the far-right UKIP party and was referred to as a great entry point to the Alt-Right by white nationalist*** Richard Spencer. How can you leave that out?

Nagle also didn’t cover a very important part of the Alt-Lite and Alt-Right, particularly the online media it has created. The money. While much of the book makes it sound like the internet is filled with communities living off of one another, crowdfunding being racist or bronies – depending upon your kink. This ignores the documented money coming from rich conservatives interested in promoting their agenda on one side of this culture war. And prior to this, there was also the organised astroturfing that occurred, again funded by rich conservatives, that fed into a lot of the online communities (some of this was documented in training sessions organised during the Tea Party movement). Suddenly that crowdfunded “both sides” feel to the online communities takes on a more one-sided and darker reality than portrayed in the book.

Finally, I come to my main critique which is also the underlying thesis of the book. Nagle is essentially arguing throughout that all of these really nasty, racist, sexist, bigoted forums and subsequent culture is the left’s**** fault because they have been successful in getting gay married, not having women tied to the kitchen sink, and having public discussions of other progressive ideas. The Shock! The Horror! This is the classic “the left caused people to drop liberal principles and become alt-right extremists” argument that Matt Bors skewered. It is no less stupid and unsupported here than elsewhere.

fault right
Source. Check out Matt’s other comics as well.

I’d be near the front of the line to agree that “the left” is filled with smug intolerant people, a la the Vampire Castle. But much like the criticism of Exiting the Vampire Castle, it’s a tad unwise to treat the issues being raised by those “lefties” as somehow wrong or a valid reason for someone to pushback and become a Nazi. There has always been pushback against successful progressive social changes, and while many of the reactionary behaviours we see in the culture wars exist across the political spectrum, a proper critic of these culture wars would address these arguments more carefully, with more insight, and would stop pretending that Alt-Right propaganda claims are valid points to base a thesis around.

I was highly disappointed and annoyed with this book.

* There is also a very important point to be made about Nagle’s lack of quantitative insight. One piece of data I keep thinking back to is the demographics of various online platforms. It is interesting to note that male-dominated forums (4chan, sub-Reddits, Youtube comments sections) tend to be more toxic than those with a neutral or female dominant audience (Tumblr). Almost as if there is an important point to be made here. With stats. With some analysis. Something. Side note, women are larger users of social media than men.

** The Tumblr list used in the book wasn’t actually from Tumblr and most likely a satirical version.

*** Richard Spencer loves to dance around being called a white nationalist or neo-Nazi, but that’s just because he knows those terms are toxic. It’s why he coined the rebranding term Alt-Right.

**** A lot of the points being made about left/liberal people (two very different groups that appear to be used somewhat interchangeably in the book, odd given that Nagle identifies as a feminist lefty) amount to lefties can be reactionaries too (call-out culture, etc). Oddly, not much discussion of the reactionary nature of all the groups being discussed and how that feeds the culture wars.

I apologise for posting a negative review. As I said in my negative review of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, I will try to keep my blog reviews 3 stars and above. I will endeavour to keep the exceptions to a minimum.

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Another review of Kill All Normies.

Book review: Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher

Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? by Mark Fisher

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.

Capitalist Realism is a long essay or short book that argues we – as in Americans, but pretty much everyone on the planet – are so emersed in capitalism that we have no frame of reference for anything else. Mark Fisher argues that this both impedes our ability to reform or fight back against the worst aspects of capitalism, and/or to develop other socio-political societies. This is, of course, he argues, bad.

This was an interesting book. There were some truly eye-opening and enlightening moments where Fisher managed to capture an idea or concept in a concise and accessible way. He makes high-level critical analysis easy to read and understand, and not like an obtuse – or is that acute? – philosophy textbook.

It was somewhat less interesting when it drew upon pop-culture references. These references were often very good and served as a great way to make points or analogies. But some undermined any points being made by the very subjective interpretations and associations used. E.g. Kurt Cobain being the last self-aware musician was a little too reductionist. Trying to argue that Cobain could see himself being commodified and thus sought escape ignores so much of what made Cobain the person he was.

Then there were the Zizek references… and so on and sniff so on. I’ve only a passing knowledge of Zizek, but many of the philosophers I follow on social media have the same thoughts on him as I have. That is, Zizek is a sloppy thinker who gets distracted from any point he is trying to make and ends up chasing his tail around. To quote Chomsky: “There’s no theory in any of this stuff, not in the sense of theory that anyone is familiar with in the sciences or any other serious field. Try to find in all of the work you mentioned some principles from which you can deduce conclusions, empirically testable propositions where it all goes beyond the level of something you can explain in five minutes to a twelve-year-old. See if you can find that when the fancy words are decoded. I can’t.” Which, again, tends to undermine the points a bit, as it can be seen as selective and potentially misrepresentative.

Overall, this was fascinating. I think Fisher’s main points are worth serious thought and action. And at 80 pages, this probably needs to be read a few times.

https://www.reddit.com/r/ChapoTrapHou…

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Book review: Bullshit Jobs – A Theory by David Graeber

Bullshit Jobs: A TheoryBullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bullshit is, of course, the technical term.

Bullshit Jobs builds upon David Graeber’s 2013 essay titled On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs. He posits that many of us are working in jobs that we know don’t need to be done, that we could stop doing them and no one would notice. And he suggests that these jobs are bad for us as individuals and society. If you’re nodding at this point, my condolences.

When David’s essay was released in 2013 it was something of a viral hit. It resonated with people.* For evidence supporting his proposed phenomenon, you need look no further than that response. Since then, some studies and a lot of discussions have taken place, which led David to more fully explain his ideas and evidence them with this book. He tries to distinguish between bullshit jobs, shit jobs, and bad jobs, and why they come about.

It is this discussion of the larger system that brings about bullshit jobs that is the most interesting aspect of the book. While the idea of bullshit jobs is still hazy – the definition is subjective when all said and done – the changes to our society, economy, and personhood are well documented and discussed. The combination of this discussion with the theory lends weight to another idea presented within: that the role of jobs in society needs to change.

Currently, we place a large amount of prestige and identity on what we do for work.** Our exchange of labour for money is how we afford to live and often how we understand our contribution to society. But is that all we have to offer? Will we be remembered by our job titles? Does that mean that unpaid work doesn’t have value, either in the identity or contribution sense? The answer to these questions is clearly no, making this discussion a highlight of the book.

This was a very interesting book and tied in well with Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists.

* Nope, I’m not going to comment one way or the other about it resonating with me. That would give away how I feel about my day job slowly killing me.
** One of the first questions you will be asked is, ‘What do you do for a living?’

Update: this review at Current Affairs is also worth a read.

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