Tag Archives: princeton university press

Scaffolding – Poems

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Scaffolding – Poems
By Elena Rivera
Princeton University Press – £13.95

tenderness passes by like mists in one’s head

                                                        (‘Nov. 24th (Finished Aug 3rd)

When I first stumbled upon the title of a book called Scaffolding, I have to admit to having my curiosity mighty piqued.

As the author of The Laughter of the Sphinx, Michael Palmer has since said, the book: ”represents a vibrant, exploratory addition to the venerable and diverse New York tradition of ‘city sonnets.”’ Although to what degree these eighty-two sonnets are wholly representative of one of the world’s greatest cities, is clearly paramount to readers objective, if not initial analysis and thought process of what New York fundamentally means.

It is in fact, polar to being: ”not ready to listen to one’s own nothing, ” the most grounded, albeit opaque sixth line of the poem ‘Dec. 4th (Revised N.D.).’

There again, it is some of this collection’s prime simplicity that tends to perhaps inadvertently home in the most. With such lines as:

”And when you least expect it it all comes back
I’m at a window elated by the sky
the moment where lights branched out and I was small”
(my italics)

and:

””by the fall of a shadow across the ground”
The ”pollution tolerant” Lindens and Oaks
witness our delusion, we work in the dark
(again, my italics)

one cannot help but feel lured in by something other – only to find that what ever that otherness is or was, punctuated by something we may have subliminally known all along. A poetic quality, which, for better or for worse, is what a certain amount of poetry is all about anyway.

That almost all of the poems are titled by date, eventually gets a tad wearing after a while; even if only from a premise of wanting a different vision from which to embark.

As is, these ”city sonnets” lean towards being far too mathematical – which to my mind at least, is a b-i-g shame. Reason being, some of Elena Rivera’s patterned randomness is truly beguiling:

”Clearly the idea of fairness was a sham
The failure of not being able to see

and most blindness turn to imitation not
being, the real fiction needs an audience”

The ‘real fiction’ does indeed need ”an audience,” and here’s hoping Rivera’s grows as a result hereof.

David Marx

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

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The Sorcerer’s Apprentice –
An Anthology of Magical Tales
Edited by Jack Zipes
Illustrated by Natalie Frank
Princeton University Press – £27.95

Prejudice in general is a belief system, not a knowledge system about a particular group, and as a belief system, stereotypes of the targeted groups are based on some obvious distinguishing appearances, but more on activities and functions attributed to the group by way of fantasies.

                                                          (‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Harry
                                                          Potter, and Why Magic Matters’).

Well, who’d have ever thought one would read such profundity in a book entitled The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – An Anthology of Magical Tales?

Not I, that’s for sure.
Especially the very opening line: ”Prejudice in general is a belief system.”

Prejudice is indeed a belief system; which can, more often than not, purport to an abundance of seething, opposing disqualification. The terrible manifestation of which can further evolve unto distinct negativity. A most distinct issue upon which editor, Jack Zipes, further continues when he writes: ”Young Bruehl maintains that there are three elementary forms of fantasy, related to sexism, racism, and anti-Semitism, and childism can involve all three forms of fantasy, belief, and action: ”1) fantasies about being able to self-reproduce and to own the self-reproduced offspring; 2) fantasies about being able to have slaves – usually sex slaves – who are not incest objects; and 3) fantasies about being able to eliminate something felt to be invidiously or secretly depleting one from within.”

The latter is something Theresa May ought to be alerted to in the run up to the pending British Election (on June 8th). Let’s face it, May’s all-round embrace of ”fantasies about being able to eliminate something felt to be invidiously or secretly depleting one from within,” is a thought process she has readily subscribed to – ever since she embarked on becoming Home Secretary in 2010.

That said, An Anthology of Magical Tales really ought not become steeped nor embroiled in political tosh.

Indeed, its 348 pages (excluding Preface, Notes and Acknowledgements, Biographies of Authors, Editors, Collectors and Translators, Filmography, Bibliography, Selected and Chronological List of Sorcerer’s Apprentice Tales and Index) is a socially induced, and perhaps visionary book that presents something of a compelling look at ye traditional tale.

As Pauline Greenhill, Co-Editor of Fairy-Tale Films Beyond Disney has since written in relation to ‘The Magician and His Pupil’: ”readers will find trenchant insights and may be surprised to learn that a tale they thought they knew has much greater complexity than they imagined.”

As touched on at the outset, there is a variable complexity entwined within this book’s three parts (‘The Humiliated Apprentice Tales, ‘The Rebellious Apprentice Tales’ and the ‘Krabat Tales’), the sort of which is not only enlightening and entertaining, but also exploratory.

Littered with an array of black and white, full-page figures, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice could even be considered rather subversive – especially when placed alongside so much of what is going on in the world today.

David Marx

Read My Lips

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Read My Lips –
Why Americans Are Proud To Pay Taxes
By Vanessa S. Williamson
Princeton University Press – £24.95

In the contemporary era, debates about who deserves to be American are still couched in the rhetoric of who pays taxes. Immigration reformers have campaigned under the slogan ”Viva Taxes!” to highlight the eagerness of unauthorised immigrants to pay their share, and, by implication, their worthiness for legal residency. In the lead-up to the 2016 election, Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton both discussed the status of immigrants in terms of taxes. ”Our undocumented workers in New York pay more in taxes than some of the biggest corporations,” said Clinton, arguing for a path to citizenship for these immigrants. A few months later, Donald Trump justified the cost of mass deportation of more than eleven million undocumented residents, along with other draconian immigration policies, by saying that these immigrants ”are here illegally. They are not paying taxes.” Throughout American history, taxpaying has been a symbolic battlefield on which political elites have fought to define the limits of citizenship.

Hmm, well who’d have thought it?
The American psyche that is, unduly answerable to some sort of societal conscience? That Donald Trump of course, hasn’t declared any tax returns whatsoever in recent years – which he has openly admitted, makes him ”smart” – is of course, a colossal irony.

If not somewhat beside the point.

That said, Read My Lips – Why Americans Are Proud To Pay Taxes, really isn’t beside the point. It is the point; not to mention an altogether enlightening read which may well go some way in deciphering just what it is that essentially makes America, the country as well as its ideology, fundamentally tick. Regardless of the appalling American Dream and the rancid trajectory of nigh everything it ultimately entails.

That said, where Vanessa S. Williamson’s book really holds sway and stands its tax induced ground, is in the perhaps robustly wayward assumption that ”Americans see being a taxpayer, as a role worthy of pride and respect, a sign that one is a contributing member of the community and the nation.”

Having lived in the States, I’d have to say that to a certain degree, this actually might be true.

The paying of taxes does, for whatever bizarre/bonkers reason, inoculate the average American with self-induced feelings of Carte Blanche righteousness and superiority. An avenue of thought, subliminally noted by the author of Finding Time: The Economics of Work-Life Conflict, Heather Boushey, when she writes: For a long time, many concluded that Americans find taxes revolting, but Williamson, employing quantitative and qualitative analysis, comes to the opposite conclusion. By asking long-unexplored questions about why we pay taxes and what we believe taxes should pay for, she reveals that Americans see paying taxes as an ethical act and one’s civic duty. Taxation with representation is at the core of what it means to be American.”

Quite oft, this is indeed all to annoyingly evident.
Likewise the notion that Americans actually enjoy doing so, which, if truth be silently told, is utter hogwash. Bollocks in fact.

Like most people, Americans abhor paying taxes, because – and here’s the (real) deal – it reeks of socialism; which in the US at least, is deemed worse than paedophilia and murder, homosexuality and communism combined.

So while Read My Lips might invariably make for ambiguous, occasionally entertaining and diversionary reading, it cannot, in all honesty, be taken at all seriously.

Rather like Donald Trump really.

David Marx

One Nation Undecided

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One Nation Undecided – Clear Thinking about Five Hard Issues That Divide Us
By Peter H. Schuck
Princeton University Press – £24. 95

     ”As the family is the essential core of any society, the steady decline of two-parent family households in the United States is probably the single most important social trend of the last half-century. In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously predicted that this decline would be most precipitous in black families, but even he under-estimated the trend: 72 percent of black babies are now born out of wedlock, triple the 1965 rate. Regardless of race, children with no father at home are now four to five times more likely to be poor than children of married parents. (Many of their unmarried mothers do have live-in partners for certain periods.) Children in female-headed households account for well over half of all poor children. Indeed, Harvard’s Equality of Opportunity Project finds that the single best predictor of low upward mobility in an area is the fraction of children with single parents.”

                                                      (Family and Community Breakdown – Poverty)

As stated on the front, dust-cover of this most thought provoking of books: ”One Nation Undecided takes on some of today’s thorniest issues and walks you through each one step-by-step, explaining what makes it so difficult to grapple with and enabling you to think smartly about it.”

Naturally, what one deciphers as ‘thinking smartly,’ depends on which side of the socio-economic/political fence one invariably finds oneself. Especially in the United States, where disparity reigns supreme amid numerous controversies of idiosyncratic ignorance; a facet of societal behaviour, more oft than not financially, if not profit driven.

The NRA (National Rifle Association) being the most perfect and pristine of examples. But what accounts for One Nation Undecided – Clear Thinking about Five Hard Issues That Divide Us being the sort of hard hitting book that it (perhaps controversially) is, is the overt, simple fact that it smokes-screens nothing.

And tells it as it really does need to be told.

The opening quote of which underlines such thinking. Yet, were one to espouse such rhetoric in an everyday publication of say safe, mediocre reportage, certain quarters would no doubt holler from that of a most pronounced premise of racial discrimination. There again, these 372 pages (excluding Acknowledgements, Notes and Index) do go in for much clarification and substantiation; which, given the fraught and occasionally bleak subject matter, is just as well (if not absolutely vital).

For instance, to get the mind thinking both honestly and academically, it should come as no surprise that Family and Community Breakdown is preceded by a piece entitled Bad Luck; which again, finds the author, Peter H. Schuck (whose previous books include Why Government Fails So Often, Meditations of a Militant Moderate, Diversity in America and Agent Orange on Trial) placing all the political cards on the table.

A table from which one can either ravenously feast. Or ignore it is entirety: ”Some people are much luckier than others. It is not simply that some of us are born with better parents, greater intelligence, happier dispositions, stronger constitutions, and in a favourable birth order. It is also what happens to us later on may have little or nothing to do with those initial endowments or with the kinds of bad choices […]. Impoverishing misfortunes can come in many forms – debilitating illness, depression, job loss, uninsured disaster – and can overtake anyone at almost any moment, rendering them poor for a considerable period of time. Divorce often impoverishes women. A 1996 study of such women found that in the first year after divorce, the average wife’s standard of living decreased by 27 percent; the husband’s improved by 10 percent! Even if these differences have narrowed since then, poverty can still be just a bad divorce (or divorce lawyer) away, especially for women.”

Hmm, makes you think…

From poverty to immigration, religiosity to affirmative action, gay marriage to transgender rights, One Nation Undecided pinpoints all the angularity of today’s increasingly complex and ever convoluted society.

As such, you’d be hard pressed to find a better book on such a wide gambit of politically controversial dissertation.

David Marx

Ethics In The Real World

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Ethics In The Real World
82 Brief Essay on Things That Matter
By Peter Singer
Princeton University Press – £19.95

No man is liberated from fear who dare not see his place in the world as it is; no man can achieve the greatness of which he is capable until has has allowed himself to see his own littleness.

Such humble thinking wouldn’t go a miss in the White House right now, not to mention the Turkish Parliament and an array of other so called high places of high-octane power.

It does after all seem that when certain movers and shakers, hipsters and shirkers – be they politicians, financial investors or perhaps worse, City mortgage advisers – reach the penultimate threshold of no longer having to worry about the next pay cheque, they automatically feel compelled to relinquish all and every shred of decency they may have once had.

A quality which may well perhaps, (partially) explain why they are the people they invariably are: usually highly motivated and focused, yet simultaneously dull and exceedingly unpleasant.

In a round-a-bout kind of way, this (partially) accounts for Ethics In The Real World – 82 Brief Essay on Things That Matter being the book it is: real and inspired, provocative, yet relentlessly well thought through and honestly considered. Qualities which ought hardly be surprising, as Peter Singer has often been described as the world’s most influential philosopher, which these 330 pages (excluding Introduction, Acknowledgements and Index) do much to clarify.

One can literally open any page of this most wonderful book, and be wholeheartedly reached by way of unarguable truth – with even the very idea of philosophy itself, already being scrutinized in the book’s Introduction: ”There is a view in some philosophical circles that anything that can be understood by people who have not studied philosophy is not profound enough to be worth saying. To the contrary, I suspect that whatever cannot be said clearly is probably not being thought clearly either.”

And the shedding of light on philosophy doesn’t end there.

The chapter ‘Philosophy On Top,’ actually concludes with the optimistic note: ”More surprising, and possibly even more significant than the benefits of doing philosophy for general reasoning abilities, is the way in which taking a philosophy course can change a person’s life. I know from my own experience that taking a course in philosophy can lead students to turn vegan, pursue careers that enable them to give half their income to effective charities, and even donate a kidney to a stranger. How many other disciplines can say that?”

Indeed, how many other disciplines can say that?

There again, As Singer openly admits: ”Given the practical importance […] as a good utilitarian I ought to aim to write for the broadest possible audience, and not merely for a narrow band of committed utilitarians.”

Broken into eleven prime parts (Big Questions, Animals, Beyond the Ethic of the Sanctity of Life, Bioethics and Public Health, Sex and Gender, Doing Good, Happiness, Politics, Global Governance, Science and Technology, and finally, Living, Playing, Working), these 82 essays traverse all that is fundamentally important in one’s life.

As such, this book ought to be considered as something of a prime humanistic template for (the intrinsic motivation of) one’s everyday behaviour.

David Marx

Germaine de Stael

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Germaine de Stael – A Political Portrait
By Biancamaria Fontana
Princeton University Press – £24. 95

          It is a cult, but one yawns in church.

What I particularly like about Germaine de Stael – A Political Portrait, is the fine fact that it addresses the very nitty-gritty, head-on, a mere few pages into what is clearly, a most well-researched thesis. There’s no particular elaboration, no flim-flam nor skirting around the edges of what was a resoundingly feisty and exceedingly independent thinker.

To be sure, some might readily argue that Germaine de Stael’s idiosyncratic independence of mind was a reaction to the fractious events taking place in France at the time. As Richard Bourke, author of Empire and Revolution: The Political Life of Edmund Burke states, this book is ”a captivating portrait of a fascinating figure caught up in the whirlwind of events.”

Quite possibly best known (today) as a novelist and literary critic, lest it be said it was Stael’s political outspokenness that perhaps best captures her all-round milieu within the parameters of the French Revolution.

The banker’s daughter who became one of Europe’s best-connected intellectuals, Stael was an exceptionally talented woman who achieved a degree of public influence to which not even her ”wealth and privilege would normally have entitled her.” Indeed, when the lives of so many around her were destroyed, she succeeded in carving out a unique path for herself, thereby ensuring her views and thoughts were heard – initially by powerful men within her immediate vicinity, and later by the European public at large.

All of which the Professor of the History of Political Ideas at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, Biancamaria Fontana, has instinctively captured. That her previous books include Montaigne’s Politics, Benjamin Constant and the Post-Revolutionary Mind and Rethinking the Politics of Commercial Society, such instinctive writing ought hardly come as a surprise.

Each of Germaine de Stael’s nine chapters (as well as Introduction and Conclusion) are written with a knowledge that nigh borders on the very dissection of the subject’s ideological belief(s).

A most pertinent example of this being Stael’s mode of necessary compassion within the general gambit of revolution, which Fontana captures perfectly in chapter six (‘Condemned to Celebrity’): ”In a revolutionary crisis it is claimed over and over again that compassion is a childish sentiment, opposed to those actions that are necessary to the general interest, and that it must be set aside, with all effeminate emotions, unworthy of men or state or chiefs of parties; it is on the contrary during a revolution that pity must become a rule of conduct. Where justice is well established, one can do without mercy; but a revolution, whatever its aim, suspends social order, and it is then necessary to go back to the source of all laws, in a moment in which legal power means nothing.”

Again, no particular elaboration, no flim-flam nor skirting around the edges of what was a resoundingly feisty and exceedingly independent thinker.

In the words of Ruth Scurr (author of Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution): ”An important and original book about a prominent female intellectual who took the measure of the French Revolution in both theoretical and practical terms. Fontana argues convincingly that Stael’s political ideas have been overlooked or underrated in previous treatments of her life and work.”

David Marx

Democracy’s Infrastructure

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Democracy’s Infrastructure –
Techno-Politics & Protest after Apartheid
By Anita Von Schnitzler
Princeton University Press – £22.95

By the standards of students of the liberal principles, the southern African plural urban society is in need of a great deal of reform before it could be expected to function well.

                                                                                       J.A. Lombard 1978

Surely this is a most profound understatement of the most profound order?

In 1978, Nelson Mandela was still incarcerated on Robben Island. It was also his sixtieth birthday, which the then British Prime Minister, James Callaghan, acknowledged, by sending him formal greetings from the House of Commons. I should imagine Mandela was beside himself with joy; especially as South African society was, if nothing else, still fundamentally out of control and seemingly beyond repair.

Fast forward to today, and we find ourselves amid a society, still teetering on the brink of breakdown, although said breakdown is supposedly reflective of South African society itself.

As much is coherently brought to bear throughout Democracy’s Infrastructure – Techno-Politics & Protest after Apartheid, by the anthropologist, Anita von Schnitzler. A savvy account of an overtly troubled nation, written from the premise of dare I actually write: that of a semi-apolitical perspective; namely that of the country’s water rights and the introduction of the all governing (it would seem) water meter.

A technological product or policing breakthrough or however you’d like to describe it, which, as von Schnitzler explains, is more clinically Orwellian, than many might initially imagine: ”A prepaid meter is a device, which, apart from measuring networked services such as electricity, gas, or water, automatically disconnects users in cases of nonpayment. In order to access services, users have to purchase and load up credit tokens in advance, either by entering a numerical code or by using a magnetic key or card. Failure to do so results in immediate ”self-disconnection.” While the meter is one of many increasingly sophisticated infrastructure technologies that mediate access to flows of goods, information, and money in many places of the world today, it is also a distinctly South African thing […]. Living prepaid mirrors life in a moment in which income has become precarious, where reliance on a regular monthly wage is the exception rather than the norm. Here, payment for basic services is no longer shaped by the cyclical temporality of regularly recurring monthly salaries and bills; instead, income as well as payment is often incremental and ad hoc.”

By it’s very nature then, living ‘prepaid’ has essentially been introduced and designated to ultimately fail.

And to fail in such a way as to both condone and promote an everyday existence which is undeniably stressful – to say the least.
Or is it?: ”While the threat of cutoff is what makes many residents object to prepaid meters, it is paradoxically also this ability to prevent debts from accumulating that often makes them attractive. Prepaid meters, in this sense, are technologies of precarity that reflect the multiple dilemmas and vicissitudes of life after the ”end of the salary” (Mbembe and Roitman 1996). Thus, they provide a window onto larger shifts in experiences of time, consumption, and life after formal employment.”

Hmm….
As the second part of the book’s title suggests (Techno-Politics & Protest after Apartheid), these six chapters traverse much of what is enabling South Africa to move forward, whilst simultaneously dissecting that which is quintessentially holding it back.

David Marx