Book Review

An online-only review of books and arguments about books.

Objective Clarity in Our Visions of Each Other

Objective Clarity in Our Visions of Each Other

On Adrian Piper

In an essay from 1988 called “The Joy of Marginality” Piper made explicit the scope and purpose of her own political and socially-critical art. “My work is an act of communication that politically catalyzes its viewers into reflecting on their own deep impulses and responses to racism and xenophobia, relative to a target or stance that I depict,” she wrote. To achieve this goal (or any goal of effecting psychological change through art), Piper thought it was essential to engage the viewer in what she called the “indexical present” of the work of art: a here-and-now created in the transaction between artist and audience. (Conversely, she expressed skepticism about the efficacy of “global political art” that attempts to educate or persuade the viewer concerning a situation represented as being external to the viewer’s own experience). In another text, “Performance: The Problematic Solution,” Piper championed the didactic and the confrontational as central aspects, or modes, of this form of artist–viewer engagement.

Money, Power, Gay Shenanigans

Money, Power, Gay Shenanigans

On Alan Hollinghurst

At this point, you might be wondering what the plot of this book is, and that’s a fair question. “My old friend the novelist Lawrence Norfolk used to say, ‘You write marvelous descriptions, but why do you have these terrible plots?’” Hollinghurst noted in The Paris Review, in 2011. “I like evoking atmospheres and analyzing relationships and feelings, but plot I feel faintly embarrassed by.” If I try to explain the wider plot of The Sparsholt Affair, and the half-tangled lives of a cast of supporting characters who flit in and about without too much consequence, it all begins to fall apart. In the fourth section, as the book begins—very slowly—to wind down, Johnny is living a relatively untroubled life in London as a moderately successful portrait painter. He’s a vegetarian. He fathers a child with a lesbian couple. He has a long-term partner called Pat, of whom we only really glimpse his “broad back and hairy thighs and long fat member, retiring now after a hard half-hour’s work,” and who later dies, of cancer, essentially in a footnote.

Not the Backward-Glancing Comrade

Not the Backward-Glancing Comrade

On Ece Temelkuran

Temelkuran, a generation removed from Gürbılek, represents something else: not the backward-glancing comrade but the daughter of one, born in 1973, raised in Izmir by a social-democrat father and Maoist mother. It’d be hard to think of a more consummate figure of what a true Turkish “new left” would look like: democratic socialist, feminist, with books on the legacies of the Armenian genocide, on the Arab Spring, on the Latin American pink tide (untranslated), chapters and articles on Kurdish politics, nearly three million Twitter followers and a vast, sui generis facility with the media. A New Left Review essay one day—a TED talk the next.

Zombie Liberalism

Zombie Liberalism

A plea for liberal nationalism ignores what it has looked like in practice.

Despite the appeal to pragmatism, Mounk’s political vision is utopian, his ideal polity a kind of liberal sublime. In a distant place far outside of history, virtuous trustees of public reason skillfully mobilize the best of nationalism while fending off its “dangerous excesses.” Entranced, Mounk sees in nationalism a muscular tool for legitimizing the political-economic order: “Nationalism is like a half-wild beast. As long as it remains under our control, it can be of tremendous use.” Who is the “beast,” and who is the “us” into which Mounk places the reader?

Now the Task Is to Remove the Others

Now the Task Is to Remove the Others

On Israel's crackdown on migrants and refugees

Since 2012, the Israeli government has taken a range of draconian measures to force asylum seekers out of the country. Israel has granted refugee status to just one Sudanese man and 11 Eritrean nationals, rejecting thousands of asylum seekers’ claims. In Europe, by comparison, 91.4 percent of Eritrean asylum requests are accepted. The asylum seekers must renew their visas every two months. They can be detained for extended periods at the Holot facility. The government confiscates 20 percent of their monthly paychecks, claiming the money will be returned to them upon their departure, and fines their employers. In 2012, the government deported over a thousand South Sudanese asylum seekers, including children, back to Juba, the capital of the newly independent state. Tens of thousands of asylum seekers have already left Israel 2013. Some have received asylum in Canada, Sweden, and the Netherlands. Others have attempted to make the dangerous journey to Libya and from there, across the Mediterranean Sea, to Europe.

Simple, Open Pleasure in a New Landscape

Simple, Open Pleasure in a New Landscape

The philosophy of David Hockney

In the central gallery housing Hockney’s drawings is a crayon portrait from 1974 of Andy Warhol, looking frail and a little lonely on a stuffed green chair in Paris. A comparison between the two artists, who were friends, is instructive. The parallels are clear: both gay, blond icons of Pop art, both protégés of Henry Geldzahler, both sons of working class parents, both prolific and witty writers. But here the similarities end, and the two artists begin to seem like inversions of each other. After the initial erotic frenzy of his work from the 1960s, the sexuality in Hockney’s art largely retreated behind discreet visual conventions; sex in Warhol was comparatively hardcore, particularly in his films. Likewise, the theme of death is explicit in Warhol and circumspect in Hockney. Warhol’s narrative voice is arch and elusive, willfully blank; Hockney’s direct and incisive, and at times, almost doggedly earnest. But the most striking zone of commonality and difference has to do with the way the two artists treated the issue of mechanical reproduction.

Misdiagnosis

Misdiagnosis

Should we be angry about Trump’s Twitter account, or the consolidation of nuclear power to a single elected position?

The diagnoses laid out here—narcissistic personality disorder, sociopathy, Alzheimer’s, Trump-as-Hitler—will not result in treatment or removal from office. They assume a rational population that needs only to have the cause laid out for them. The problem confronting America is not a dearth of facts; the problem, rather, is that most people want the benefits of a system whose logical extreme—Trump—they can’t tolerate.

Black Hole Sun God

Black Hole Sun God

Michael Wolff takes stock

The President is presented as someone who constantly watches TV—three in bed at once, we’re told—and whose antipathy for the written word is so intense his staff has concluded he is “semiliterate” or even “dyslexic.” Fundamentally incurious and easily bored, Trump time and again reveals neither knowledge of or the barest interest in any of his supposedly most cherished policy issues, from the budget to Obamacare.

Not Every Kid-Bond Matures

Not Every Kid-Bond Matures

Millennial habits so often mocked and belittled in the press are the survival strategies of a demographic “born into captivity.”

The summation Kids These Days gives us is harrowing: here is a generation hurrying to give in to the unremitting, unforgiving commodification of the self. Malcolm Harris predicts a future of debt servitude, confinement for the “malfunctioning,” worsening misogyny (though his gender analysis is less coherent than the rest of his argument), and total surveillance. Millennials, that is, are the first generation to live in the dystopia to come.

Sub-Sub-Underground-Anti-Connoisseurship

Sub-Sub-Underground-Anti-Connoisseurship

Adrift with Allan Sekula

When Sekula died of cancer in August 2013 at age sixty-two, he left behind a remarkable legacy as a photographer, filmmaker, art historian, activist, and educator, though only a fairly small—albeit distinguished—tribe of artists and academics has taken stock of it. Much of his work is united by a consistent interest: wherever capitalism sought to hawk the fantasy of an immaterial economy, or to hide its stink in refrigerated shipping freight, Sekula made it his artistic practice to visualize and to describe its mechanisms of concealment.

Converts to Abortion Rights

Converts to Abortion Rights

Dr. Willie Parker’s new book attempts the unusual and difficult task of reconciling support for abortion rights and abiding religious belief.

The word “conversion” fits the abortion-rights cause awkwardly. There is no progressive equivalent to Priests for Life, a website cataloging the stories of sidewalk protesters-turned-Planned Parenthood donors. Abortion rights were, in the beginning, a public health issue. Opponents started framing the cause in moral terms—something that defenders were at pains to avoid. The president of the Association for the Study of Abortion, Jimmye Kimmey, is credited for coming up with the phrase “pro-choice” in 1972. She preferred, she wrote in a memo, because “what we are concerned with is, to repeat, the woman’s right to choose—not with her right (or anyone else’s right) to make a judgment about whether that choice is morally licit.”