For those who don’t know, one thing I love to do is read. And while the Occidental calendar of months and years are rather arbitrary, one thing I have started doing in 2023 is writing brief reviews of what I’ve been reading and sharing them on a couple social media sites. I figured I might as well share them here as well. Instead of publishing each review as its own post, I’ve decided to just do a one-off round-up of every book I’ve read this month. I have no idea if this will be a regular feature of the blog, we’ll see what next month brings.
A major reason for doing this is that along with reading books, I love talking about books. So if you’ve got thoughts on any of the books or reviews below, or have your own recommendations, please do share! I’m always looking for new reads to add to my list.
Here’s a list of the books reviewed in this post:
- Foundation’s Edge by Isaac Asimov
- Critique of Black Reason by Achille Mbembe
- The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
- A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging by Dionne Brand
- Home: Habitat, Range, Niche, Territory by Martha Wells
- The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer by Janelle Monáe
- Ontological Terror: Blackness, Nihilism, and Emancipation by Calvin L. Warren
- Machinehood by S.B. Divya
- Cannibal Metaphysics by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro
Foundation’s Edge by Isaac Asimov
I didn’t actually write a review for this one. But phew, I’m nearly to the end of this series, just one more book to go. I do have to say that this book was notable for containing at least one strong woman character – and it only took Asimov 20+ years to figure out how to write one. Because he was so painfully white and male and racist and sexist, reviewing Asimov is a mixed bag. Undoubtedly, he was very creative and this book is probably my favorite of the series so far. But one cannot see past the severe prejudices and discriminations he wrote into his texts.
Critique of Black Reason by Achille Mbembe
Many reviews and blurbs of Critique of Black Reason by Achille Mbembe note it as “challenging” or “demanding.” While not an easy read, a large part of the difficulty of the text emerges from its lack of structure and overall argumentative coherence, leaving one to feel as if one is reading a collection of disparate thoughts brought together in book form.
Mbembe sets out to write a genealogy of Blackness, or to pick apart Black Reason – that phenomenon of fantasy and ignorant apprehension surrounding the epistemology of the Black subject, Blackness, and Africa. However, the path often gets lost and at times it became unclear if I was reading a poor version of Paul Gilroy, a literary review of African novelists, or a history of French colonization. Clarity in the text also suffers from Mbembe’s reluctance or inability to ontologically situate Blackness, preferring to make insinuations or allow others to comment on being/nonbeing, subject/object, life/death, etc., without staking out his own claim. This makes his epistemological task all the more difficult, as it rests on unsure footing. Lastly, of course a book will be difficult when there are statements in the text that simply do not make sense or hold any water without the providing of further explication or supporting evidence, which is not offered.
There are other issues with the text, such as the focus on the nineteenth century as the key moment for racial construction, the gendering throughout of the “Black Man” (Hortense Spillers would like a word), and deploying as critique that which he is critiquing – namely speaking in a universalizing manner about Africa en toto or the ostensible experiences of all colonized peoples.
While I have been harsh in this review, the book is certainly not without merit and has poignant moments of analysis, in particular around colonization. It also ends in a spirit of hope and gestures towards the future, which I don’t share, but some people like that sort of thing.
The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
I didn’t expect to enjoy a book about elevators so much. But then it’s really not about elevators. It’s in large part about race, about different forms of seeing and experiencing the world, all wrapped up in a compelling mystery.
It’s a critique of kinds of knowledge that proclaim themselves as absolute and the bearers of truth, especially when that knowledge is used to uphold forms of oppression. It’s a gesture towards other forms of being and knowing, ones that at times elude detection by the powers that be as a means of survival or marronage and at others confront them head on, empowered to create a new world.
It’s engaging, accessible, empathic, surprising, and witty. And also talks a lot about elevators.
A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging by Dionne Brand
A stunning, wrenching read. Part memoir, part travelogue, part poetry, part literary review, part critical theory, at all times engaging, at certain moments breathtaking.
Brand’s literal and metaphoric Door of No Return – that nonexistent, all-too-real, long past, ever-present – door, moment, episteme, paradigm guides the text as she examines Blackness in the Diaspora and transports us through cartographies and geographies both internal and external, from the Caribbean to Canada, from Africa to Amsterdam. It is a journey with a definite beginning, one of erasure, but with an undefined destination, or the possibility of no arrival at all, just points on a map and not one of them labelled “home.”
Home: Habitat, Range, Niche, Territory by Martha Wells
I didn’t write a review for this one either. It is a very, very short story falling between books four and five of the Murderbot series. It didn’t do much for me because of it’s brevity and because the focus was largely not on Murderbot. Having said that, if you haven’t yet checked out this series, I would emphatically and unequivocally recommend it.
The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer by Janelle Monáe
I approached this book with some skepticism. In general, I’m skeptical of celebrities, even celebrities such as Janelle Monáe. And more skeptical of celebrities who try to write books. My skepticism increased when I saw the five stories comprising this volume were co-authored by Monáe, with a different author contributing to each piece. At the same time, I really enjoyed the Dirty Computer Emotion Picture, but was unsure how well Monáe and her co-writers would pull off creating narrative worlds based off an album concept. Quite well is the answer.
I genuinely enjoyed each of these five stories. My skepticism proved unwarranted. There is beauty, creativity, music, rebellion, love, vision, and authenticity running through these texts. There are the subalterns, the persecuted creating new worlds in the shell of the old, fighting back against a world in which they are not welcome and are targeted for erasure. There is queer, trans, and Black joy, resilience, and refusal. There are the dirty computers showing us the way through this storm of oppression, hatred, fascism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, transphobia, and misogynoir, showing us the potential end of this world and what possible new worlds might emerge or are already waiting for us.
Ontological Terror: Blackness, Nihilism, and Emancipation by Calvin L. Warren
A difficult text in multiple senses. It is extremely demanding and theoretically dense. Some familiarity with Heidegger, Spillers, Wynter, and Fanon is helpful. Yet I am sure there were points I did not fully grasp. It is also difficult in that its argument and conclusions are hard to encounter, absorb, and take on, despite my agreement with them.
Warren writes from a Black nihilist perspective, one that echoes many of the claims of Afro-pessimism. His foundational question, riffing on Heidegger, is “How’s it going with black
being?” The answer is not well. Or perhaps not at all. Not at all because we exist in an anti-Black world that subjects black being to an endless “metaphysical holocaust,” beginning with the trans-Atlantic slave trade and continuing to this day. As such, black being is stripped of Being, subjected to onticide (ontological murder), is nothing, and is the opposite of Being (or the human). The human is consistently attempting to annihilate the nothing that is black being, yet the human’s ontometaphysical existence as a knowable subject and Being is contingent on the nothingness of black being. Thus black existence is one of ongoing ontological terror, of placelessness, timelessness, formlessness, nothingness, of availability to all forms of violence in the name of maintaining the human.
To support this argument, the four chapters in the book look at ontological terror through philosophy and theory, the law, science and mathematics, and the image. He draws upon the antebellum “free black” to illustrate in each section the realities of this “metaphysical holocaust” and the inhabiting of nothingness, effectively demonstrating how emancipation is not freedom and that freedom is not an available option to black
being. The conclusion Warren comes to is that the only escape from an anti-Black world is, echoing Fanon and the Afro-pessimists, its destruction and the destruction of the human. Until then, he says, the only available option for black being is endurance.
While the text is bleak, I believe that it is justifiably so, and overall, I would recommend this book. It forces us to consider compelling questions about what “change” means in an anti-Black world. It forces us to forego hope in the face of a stark, sobering reality. Ultimately it is a pathway into thinking through something perhaps even beyond revolutionary change in the form of ontological destruction. My only critiques are that at times the text was repetitive and as a result perhaps longer than necessary to make its point. My other concern is that Warren writes from a US-centric lens while asserting the global nature of anti-Blackness. It would have strengthened his argument to move beyond the US and US history.
Machinehood by S.B. Divya
It’s 2095, and technology has of course advanced rapidly, with the population reliant on designer pills and AI assistants as they primarily toil away at gig work. Posthumanism is in full effect, with some embracing transhumanism. In such a tech dependent society, a threat emerges that forces the populace to confront and fear its dependence on machines. Our hero springs into action to stop this “Machinehood” but first must determine if it is a smart AI, a group of neo-Buddhists, or a technophobic caliphate.
If you can push politics, some forced character construction and plot points, and some all-too-convenient and none-too-believable story twists aside and read this book for its entertainment value alone, then it might be worth picking up. But clearly the author meant for this to be a novel that inspires reflection on our relationship with technology. Unfortunately, the book falls short there.
This is in part because the author refuses to go all-in in her socio-political analysis. So we have horrific neoliberal capitalism that is sometimes bad, but not too bad. Venture capitalists as mournable victims but also cheats. A nauseatingly patriotic protagonist who has issues with the government. A strident defense of private property and law and order even when those things don’t work out. There’s so much waffling, I need some syrup. To top it all off, there’s that elephant in the book called Orientalism (with a dab of Islamophobia), in that throughout, we constantly hear that “dark” North Africa and its ever-expanding caliphate might be humanity’s existential threat. That’s a tiresome trope.
I wish I could have liked this book more, but not with all those flaws. And one pet peeve: the caliphate is called al-Muwahhidun. The book always refers to it as “the al-Muwahhidun.” But “al” in Arabic means “the.” So literally hundreds of times we read about “the the Muwahhidun.” The lack of knowledge to catch that error in many ways encapsulates the quality of this book on the whole.
Cannibal Metaphysics by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro
Not having a strong background in Claude Lévi-Strauss or Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, this book was extremely challenging and at many points just didn’t make sense to me. I ended up more skimming it than reading every word as it was all largely over my head.
From what I was able to ascertain that I did appreciate was the inversion of anthropology and anthropological practice via what Viveiros de Castro refers to as perspectivism and multinaturalism. These are rooted in the perspective of Indigenous peoples he conducted field work with in so-called Brazil who view all animals and spirits as humans as well. Meaning there are “human humans” and “non-human humans,” but who is human varies depending on perspective. For example, a jaguar sees itself as human, but us humans as non-humans, whereas we may see ourselves as humans and the jaguar as non-human. However, all animal and spirit beings are wrapped up in humanity, which raises the point, “What everything is human, the human becomes a wholly other thing.”
This perspectivism and multinaturalism leads Viveiros de Castro to reflect on how Indigenous peoples perform their own form of anthropology, including on the anthropologists doing anthropology on them. Because the Indigenous and Occidental frames are so different from one another, the forms of anthropology end up missing each other and misunderstanding each other. Along with the introduction of a third concept, that of “cannibal alterity,” Viveiros de Castro ultimately is arguing for a new ontology of anthropology that, through rigorous engagements with Lévi-Strauss and Deleuze and Guattari, forces the Occidental anthropologist to reassess the ground on which they walk, think, write, and inhabit.
At least, that’s what I got out of it, though I could be entirely wrong. This isn’t a text to pick up unless one is well-versed in the aforementioned authors and passionate about the field of anthropology.
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