Tag Archives: Political

The Overstory

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Overstory [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Richard Powers.

Powers The Overstory

“To be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs.” (383)

The profuse blurbs in my copy of this Pulitzer-winning novel include one from Nathaniel Rich at The Atlantic, highlighting author Richard Powers’ anomalous work in a field where “literary convention favors novelists who write narrowly about personal experience,” and Powers himself has been quoted as complaining that “Literary fiction has largely become co-opted by that belief that meaning is an entirely personal thing.” None of which is to say that this book lacks vividly-realized characters with complex interiority. But it may perhaps account for why the comparanda that occurred to me when reading it were more science-fictional than “literary.”

Certainly the “cli-fi” element will put many readers in mind of the work of Kim Stanley Robinson, who has treated this large theme in many capable novels. I also observed a kinship to Ian McDonald’s River of Gods, where the forest in Powers’ book takes on the organizing and animating function of the river in McDonald’s. Both of these novels have a regard for artificial intelligence that de-centers it from the human perspective. Yet another book brought to mind is The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, a work of science fiction published as literary fiction. Mitchell’s “atemporals” have some of their role taken up by the trees in The Overstory, but more importantly his social and philosophical concerns and the way he illustrated them through personal situations seemed quite similar to what I found in this book.

In addition to beautiful prose and profound reflection, there’s a considerable amount of failure and death–both arboreal and human–in this novel. It is a sweeping tragedy that brought me to tears a few times. The final summation was a bit less intellectually honest than what I took away from Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, but I guess I would still call The Overstory good medicine for those willing to take it.

“And what do all good stories do? … They kill you a little. They turn you into something you weren’t.” (412)

Pure War

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Pure War [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Paul Virilio and Sylvère Lotringer, trans. Mark Polizzotti and Brian O’Keeffe, part of the Semiotext(e) / Foreign Agents series.

Virillio Lotringer Pure War

“I am the warrior Lord of the Forties: the Eighties cower before me, & are abased.” CCXX III:46

Pure War is a book-length interview — arbitrarily broken into chapters — of Paul Virilio by Sylvère Lotringer. Urbanist intellectual Virilio is a theorist of the mechanisms by which war drives technology (and vice versa), and the inventor of dromology as the study of how “speed” transforms social relations. His authorities on military theory include J.F.C. Fuller (57, 69). Virilio posits an essential conflict between military and civil society, or more hypostatically, between war and politics. Although the Pure War interview took place in 1983, during what the participants did not know was the twilight of the Cold War, the trends which Virilio describes have only intensified in the following decades. He sees war with the upper hand, and politics teetering on the edge of an exterminating abyss. 

As I reflect on the relevant changes since the publication of Pure War, I observe that the ongoing militarization of society has meant that some technologies of speed (e.g. SST) have been withdrawn from the civil sphere while being advanced in the military one. Virilio contemplated the dromological potential of the orbital laser, but the Internet and the predator drone both suit his model without being instanced by it. Also, the advancing commercialization of the US military (Halliburton food service, Blackwater/XE mercenaries, etc.) vindicates Virilio’s observations, as war further frees itself from politics. The spasm of US militarism during which the President was almost universally referenced as the “Commander in Chief” has subsided somewhat, but not due to any reduction in the dedication of US resources to the military. Virilio’s notions about endocolonization could hardly be more apt to the current American scene, in which the massive military expenditures of the first decade of the century are being exacted from the civil society of the second.

As an interviewer, Lotringer asks few actual questions. His contributions often seem to be attempts to condense Virilio’s theses more pithily, for instance: “The peak of speed is the extermination of space. The end of time is absolute deterritorialization.” (74) These remarks then goad Virilio into clarifications and enlargements.

Virilio offers a genealogy in which civil society (originally the city) was actually twin-born with military society from pre-civilized “tumults” of all-against-all violence. He posits this in contradistinction to the model of trade as the basis for civilization. According to him, war has evolved from tactics (pre-martial violence), through strategy (control of space), to logistics (control of time). The global fruition of logistics is the “pure war” in which humanity is increasingly subject to a non-human technological agenda predicated on abstract, hyperreal conflict. 

The fascination with and prioritization of war does not mean that Virilio sides with it against politics — quite the reverse. Virilio himself is a Christian who opposes theocracy in favor of civil liberty, and in fact he declares, “Pure War is the absolute idol.” (171) All of his prescience is somewhat gloomy in that respect, even if I don’t share his values. He does credit the regime of nuclear deterrence positively with reawakening a religious sense in the secular world; he even calls Nietzschean atheism “the abomination of desolation.” For someone who doesn’t worship the Crowned and Conquering Child, he seems nevertheless to have the number of the Lord of the Aeon.

A moral critique of capitalism, emphasizing the ways in which it leads to suffering, only reinforces capitalist realism. Poverty, famine and war can be presented as an inevitable part of reality, while the hope that these forms of suffering could be eliminated easily painted as naive utopianism. Capitalist realism can only be threatened if it is shown to be in some way inconsistent or untenable; if, that is to say, capitalism’s ostensible ‘realism’ turns out to be nothing of the sort.

Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Fisher Capitalist Realism moral critique capitalism suffering reinforces realism nothing of the sort

It is worth recalling that what is currently called realistic was itself once ‘impossible’: the slew of privatizations that took place since the 1980s would have been unthinkable only a decade earlier, and the current political-economic landscape (with unions in abeyance, utilities and railways denationalized) could scarcely have been imagined in 1975. Conversely, what was once eminently possible is now deemed unrealistic.

Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Fisher Capitalist Realism realistic was once impossible once eminently possible now deemed unrealistic

The Kingdom and the Glory

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Giorgio Agamben, translated by Lorenzo Chiesa with Matteo Mandarini.

Agamben Chiesa Mandarini The Kingdom and the Glory

The Kingdom and the Glory was issued a short while before The Sacrament of Language, but in the plan of Agamben’s Homo Sacer project, the first book follows the second, and that is the sequence in which I read them. They are closely connected in theme, exploring points in which concepts cross or transcend the boundaries between the theological and the political. The Kingdom and the Glory is a much larger undertaking in both scope and scale.

The work of the book is a Foucauldian (i.e. neo-Nietzschean) genealogy of “glory” as an operator in the conceptual justification of “economy” and “government”–that is, in the theological and political registers, respectively. (The ancient theological sense of “economy” is distinct from its modern significance.) It touches on esoteric fields such as Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, Kabbalah, and Grail legendry. But it also traces its concerns through the vertebral canon of philosophy from Aristotle through Heidegger, as well as the entire span of Christian theology.

As The Sacrament of Language was trained on the performative language of the oath, so The Kingdom and the Glory in large measure revolves around the nature and function of acclamation. Section 8.19 in particular is a valuable inquiry into amen as “the acclamation par excellence” of Christian liturgy.

Some of the political consequences of the insights in this 2007 book seem to cast light on the fragility of the legislative function in putative democracies like that of Germany in the first part of the 20th century or the United States in the 21st. The sovereignty of the people is inadequately manifested by the legislature, which allows for the usurpation of its “kingdom” by the “government” of the executive, and the collapse of what Agamben calls in theology “the providential machine.”

My hat is off to translators Chiesa and Mandarini, not only for making Agamben intelligible in English, and for keeping track of the various linguistic registers among which he navigates, but for introducing me to two English words. In the course of reading this book, I learned tralatitious (152) and epenetic (246). Also, I forgive them for using mythologeme in lieu of mytheme (106).

Consistent with my prior reading of Agamben, I found this book difficult and rewarding.