Book Review: The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord

The Society of the SpectacleThe Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Quotations are useful in periods of ignorance or obscurantist beliefs.”

The Society of the Spectacle is an aphoristic set of polemic essays that examines the “Spectacle,” Debord’s term for the everyday manifestation of capitalist-driven phenomena; advertising, television, film, and celebrity. He argues that we have become alienated from ourselves and reality in order to have us serve the economy/capitalism with the production of commodities and accumulation of wealth.

I first encountered the idea of the Spectacle from Peter Coffin (see below) and his video essays related to what he terms Cultivated Identity. This is a fascinating idea and particularly relevant today in the age of mass media, late-stage capitalism, and the commodified zeitgeist. Look at how much of our society is obsessed with or based upon edifying upward mobility, celebrity, fame, reputation, and positions of power or prestige.

This ultimately means that our media has become what tells us how to think and it is essentially inescapable within our modern society. Thus, the limits of our conversations and thinking have already been defined, which then becomes a feedback loop for the media we consume. Click “Like” if you already agree.

The only drawback of this work was that it is obscurus and jingoistic. Aphorisms might be cool for ancient philosophers, but they don’t make for great enlightenment nor clear communication of ideas. I’ve actually gained more from reading and watching related overviews of The Society of the Spectacle than from Debord’s actual work.

Wikipedia
Illustrated Guide to Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle
Super Summaries

Peter Coffin’s video essays on the Spectacle:

Discussion of the Spectacle by a philosopher:

And her blog post on it: https://dweeb.blog/2018/12/21/the-society-of-the-spectacle/

An audiobook in Spectacle form:

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Book review: In Praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell

In Praise of IdlenessIn Praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”*

In Praise of Idleness is an essay written in between the two world wars and expands upon one of the points made in his Political Ideals essay. Once again, Russell manages to argue a challenging concept in an erudite and concise manner. Even if you disagree with him on the idea of work being overrated, there is value in engaging with what he is saying.

On inequality:
“Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for others.”
Variations of this statement are still being made today around inequality. They tend to use far more words.

On wasted efforts:
“Modern technique has made it possible to diminish enormously the amount of labour required to secure the necessities of life for everyone. This was made obvious during the war.** At that time all the men in the armed forces, and all the men and women engaged in the production of munitions, all the men and women engaged in spying, war propaganda, or government offices connected with the war, were withdrawn from productive occupations.”
I mean, could you be any more scathing of warmongering?

While I think he does make his argument well, there are some points that are taken as a given. The example of the wasted effort of war in the quote above is one of those. There is a valid point made about how society managed to function despite being asked to drop everything and fight a war, but the point about war being a waste of time and that standards of living were still okay just has to be taken as a given.

Worth a read, even if you disagree with Russell on some or all points.

* Parkinson’s Law, coined in 1955.
** WW1
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Book review: Discourse on the Origin of Inequality by Jean Jacques Rousseau

Discourse on the Origin of InequalityDiscourse on the Origin of Inequality by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Natural man vs Social man: there can be only one winner!

In 1754, the Academy of Dijon held a competition to answer the question, “What is the origin of inequality among people, and is it authorized by natural law?” In response, Rousseau wrote his famous Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. No one remembers the first prize winner.*

As one of the early Enlightenment thinkers, and as someone who inspired the French Revolution, Rousseau was/is an important philosopher. This work on equality is certainly one filled with important thoughts on how inequality isn’t just about natural differences between people** but is about society itself creating inequality. I would interpret this as the powerful/wealthy structuring society to benefit themselves, but an argument could be made for those with the will to power.

The main issue I had with this book was that much of the argument is based upon a flawed evolution of “man”. While I don’t think this undermines his points, it does highlight how far our understanding of humanity, our evolution, and our social bonds has improved.

The version I read of this book had a biography and philosophic overview of the work by Israel Bouseman. This was an excellent addition. It did highlight the flawed knowledge of human evolution, however, it failed to note the now known social aspects of humanity that negate some of the points made.

I’d recommend reading the Bouseman edition of this book whilst trying to contextualise the ideas within our more advanced understanding of human evolution.

Further reading: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ro…

*I tell a lie, it was François Xavier Talbert.
**Rousseau refers to men only, specifically European men. Women are lesser beings, and non-Europeans are savages. I found it unclear whether that makes the savages natural men or something beneath that. This is made more unclear by the common false attribution of the Noble Savage trope to Rousseau.

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Book review: Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook by Mark Bray

Antifa: The Anti-Fascist HandbookAntifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook by Mark Bray

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Is it okay to punch Nazis? What if I told you that is only one of the tactics for dealing with Nazis?

The Anti-Fascist Handbook aims to summarise the history of fascism and its opponents, the rise of more recent fascist groups, the lessons from history for dealing with fascism, the issue of “free speech” and fascism, and how to combat fascism today. Historian Mark Bray has detailed the tactics of the Antifa movement and the philosophy behind it through interviews and the compilation of history and research into fascism.

I’ve noticed that there are several topics that seem to be widely discussed but never with any actual knowledge. Antifa, Black Lives Matter, and other social movements are prime examples. So when I saw Ollie from Philosophy Tube’s video discussing this book (and other related work) I knew that Bray’s book on Antifa would be another of my must reads.

I think one of the most important takeaways from this book is that the rise of fascism to power hasn’t historically required huge support, just a lot of apathy from the masses. Too often debates will rage around “free speech” or “is it okay to punch a Nazis” while completely missing the point that fascists are loving being legitimised with any of these debates.

The five important lessons (my summary of the headings):

  1. Fascist revolutions have never succeeded, they gained power legally.
  2. Many interwar leaders and theorists did not take fascism seriously enough until it was too late. (Sound familiar?)
  3. Political leaders/groups are often slower to react to fascism than those on the ground.
  4. Fascism steals from left ideology, strategy, imagery, and culture (e.g. the liberal idea of “free speech”).
  5. It doesn’t take many fascists to make fascism (Overton windows shift easily).

Whilst this was a very interesting and important book, it wasn’t perfect. The coverage of fascism outside of Europe was limited; something Bray acknowledged he wasn’t going to cover in detail and would have been a nice addition – something for the next instalment perhaps. Also, the defining traits of fascism were clearly made, but the differences between groups that fall under that banner, or are adjacent (and thus facilitate normalisation), weren’t discussed. I would have found it interesting to have the discussion of how alt-right and alt-lite differ and how you combat the latter. Minor points that might be in future editions.

So before you next hear a professional opinion-haver brand Antifa as terrorists, it would be worth reading this book.

Philosophy Tube video:

Alt-lite influence: https://datasociety.net/wp-content/up…

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Book Review: The Way of Zen by Alan Watts

The Way of ZenThe Way of Zen by Alan W. Watts

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When you sit, sit. When you browse Twitter, browse Twitter… Maybe there’s a reason social media causes stress.

The Way of Zen by Alan Watts is an introduction to Zen Buddism and its roots in Taoism and Mahayana Buddhism. It was one of the first books of its kind and tries to explain “Eastern” concepts to a “Western” audience.

After my forays into various “Western” philosophers and philosophies, I thought it was time to investigate some others that weren’t just footnotes to Plato. Having already read the Dao De Jing and a more modern guide to Zen, I thought reading a bit more on Zen would be interesting. Watts certainly covers some quite different ground to Zen in the Age of Anxiety and puts the Dao in more context.

This was certainly less of a philosophy text and more of an overview or introduction to Zen. One of Watts’ central aims was to make sure the reader understood how the “Western” philosophical tradition has a strict adherence to certain logical structures which the “Eastern” philosophies like Zen do not. This was certainly an important distinction and something that must have helped popularise Zen Buddhism outside of the “East”.

 

I will have to explore this topic further.

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Book review: Zen in the Age of Anxiety by Tim Burkett

Zen in the Age of AnxietyZen in the Age of Anxiety by Tim Burkett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Clear your mind, relax, and read this review.

Zen in the Age of Anxiety is a guidebook and teaching manual that focuses on how to deal with stress, anxiety, and address the underlying mental behaviours that cause them. Burkett lays out the teachings and key points with easy to follow explanations and a series of anecdotes from his +50 years as a Zen practitioner and draws on his background in psychology.

This was a very interesting book. I originally borrowed a copy from the library because I’d previously read Lao Tzu’s Dao De Jing. Okay, a bit of a leap between the two, but Zen teachings have their roots in Buddhism, which in turn has roots in the Dao (Tao), something Burkett mentions in passing. There are a lot of helpful insights and practices in this book that could help most people in their lives. At the very least, it was interesting to read something with such a different perspective on life.

My only gripe was a minor one. A lot of practices and philosophies, especially those with “Eastern” origins, tend to be tied up with spiritualism and mysticism. As a result, there tends to be a blending of nonsense (both ancient and modern) with the good stuff. As an example, in a later chapter, there is an example given that involves an analogy with how vaccines and homoeopathy work. Except that it incorrectly describes how vaccines work, and incorrectly describes homoeopathy as working at all. So best to use a critical eye when reading.

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