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Book Review

Ontology of the Accident

A mini book review of Catherine Malabou’s Ontology of the Accident: An Essay on Destructive Plasticity (2012 translated by Carolyn Shread)

French philosophy has such a certain… je ne sais quoi about it. Sometimes I find the deconstruction-flavored denigrating tone to be a very pleasant literary experience, with specters of cigarette smoke and café-au-lait swirling in my mind. While at other moments the self-referential language games are merely annoying. The cascade of nihilistic hot-takes can really sear my nostrels as lyrical metaphors get stretched to a bitingly acidic thinness.

Catherine Malabou is a real remedy for expectations of the latter! In this short collection of essays she bridges an academic gap between Neuroscience and Ontology via a surprisingly fun tour of writings by Spinoza, Deleuze, Proust, and Kafka. Malabou is expanding and elaborating her already rich speculations on Plasticity. It is a brave and honest exploration of the inverse to the commonly celebrated aspects of neuroplasticity; the violent moral shadow of Plasticity. Destructive Platicity.

I especially enjoyed Malabou’s connecting some subtle points on Freud’s incomplete views about ageing mind with Marguerite Duras stylistic use of “asyndeton”, a literary device in which conjunctions are deliberately omitted from a series of related clauses to the effect of eliminating the sense of causal flow in a sentence. These kinds of poetic high-wire acts are best savored between long-stares out of a rainy-day windows.

Depending on one’s patience for intransitive language (the cornerstone of post-structuralist French philosophy?) this little book is well worth a read for its real bounty of interesting, meaningful, and challenging insights. The English translation by Carolyn Shread is a delight.

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Book Review

Meeting the Universe Halfway

A mini book review of Karen Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (2007)

I found this book because of a shared pet peeve, that of hucksters misusing the concepts of quantum physics to promote Self-Help Books like “The Secret”. Karen Barad’s massive book does not spare any detail. Her exhaustive tome dives deep down into her decades-long study of Neils Bohr’s philosophy of science.

Thinking through Bohr’s misunderstood theory of “complementary” against Heisenberg’s theory of “uncertainty”, Barad grounds her theory of Agential Realism. Matter matters, but for real here. She uses a beautiful metaphor of the refraction of light (as opposed to mere reflection) to poetically frame her insights. Combined with her fervent commitment to “intra-agency” as a more accurate model for embodied reality, all of these big ideas serve as impressive tent-poles to this sprawling and generous work.

It can be overly repetitive in sections due to its unflinching commitment to clarity via scientific language, but perhaps with good reason. To err on this side make sense here – rather than slipping into the sloppier ease of Pop Science styling which this book is in large part a polemic against.

Committed readers are treated to a final section that is a wild tour of the intra-entangled mind of a species of brittle star (Ophiuroidea, similar to starfish). This is the feminist physics you’ve been looking for. Taking the profound implications of quantum reality seriously is still making my head spin a bit, but hey, that’s ontology for ya!

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Book Review

The Metabarons

Mini Book Review of Jodorowsy and Gimenez’ Epic Graphic Novel

Jodorowsky is a madman. His cult filmic work is legendary, and his Incal (with Moebius) is a masterpiece. The Metabaron’s definitely satisfies any curious reader’s yearning for more after finishing The Incal. Gimenez’ art is glorious and disturbing.

The framing device of these lil’ robot buddies works better than it should. A touch of comic relief between psychospiritual space-saga is more than welcome.

The graphic violence and misogyny upset me more than I had expected. I had been cautioned about this before – but gave it little thought. Its… not subtle. However, getting beyond that, the multi-generational intergalactic soap opera delivers plenty of cool ideas. A big reason I finally delved into this massive tome was Juan Gimenez’ tragic passing this past year. It was worth the price of entry to pour over his insane pages. Bristling with techno-gothic arabesques and oozing with bio-horror monstrosities, it is an overwhelming, maximalist achievement of personal style.

RIP Juan Gimenez, 1943-2020
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Book Review

Low

A mini comics review of Rick Remender and Greg Tocchini’s “Low” 2014-2020.

Just, Wow.

I understand some reviewer’s reticence about the third and fourth volume. In a future where the sun’s expansion has forced humanity’s survivors into underwater domes for survival, Stel’s unbreakable optimism is an immediate hook for the reader. As the cruelty of this future world reduces hope more and more, issue by issue, it can test the reader’s willingness to keep reading. But, true believers, the fifth (and final) volume totally delivers on the themes set up in those first few issues.

The art and writing are beautiful. I was put off at first glance by the loose style and wild fish-eye perspectives. But, as I read on I was quickly converted as these aesthetic nuances pare so elegantly with the storytelling. The loose lines read as wet and slippery, and the wide-angle shots telegraph the feel of living an entire life nested in helmets and underwater globes.

The massive world-building is a visual treat, and in the long-run the emotional story-arcs satisfy with a deeply human message.

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Book Review

The Seep

Mini Book Review of The Seep by Chana Porter (2020)

A breezy and smart twist on invasion scifi. The Seep is the alien entity that gently permeates the world, connecting everything into a (utopian?) network. Trina, our main character, is a somewhat contrarian middle-aged trans woman. I loved the strong sense of voice we get through her, and her unease in the apparent bliss of this weird new world.

The dialogue is excellent, and the sparse writing style is elegantly reserved throughout. This book felt like a literary-fiction romance novella with an uncanny scifi twist!

Plot conflict arises not-so-much from the alien conceits as from, refreshingly, the interpersonal dramas of the still-mostly-human characters. (There is a bartender who is, endearingly, a bear.) Trina’s partner has decided to follow the latest Seep trend to be reborn a baby. The novel explores category indeterminacy and identity politics in a way that feels relevant, fresh, and sensitive without becoming preachy or overtly polemical.

A favorite sequence describes the Seep-induced transcendence of a cult-leader-musician with a real touch of visceral language. This ecstatic, floating union is described as delirious body horror. The physicality of this moment really captures what I liked about The Seep. Chana Porter let her weird world feel lived in, really embodied, with a reserved poetry of style.

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Book Review

The Lesson

Mini Book Review of The Lession by Cadwell Turnbull (2019)

A fun read overall that explores the lives of those before and after the appearance of an alien race, the Ynna.

Takes place in the Virgin Islands, exploring its culture and history. It’s this exploring of its history, focusing on slavery and slave rebellions, where it draws some interesting parallels. Also dealing with an island that went through being colonized by Europeans to now being colonized by aliens.
Still unsure what they “Lesson” is, but that is perhaps because the book balances between exploring loving relationships and showing the general indifference of nature/universe. The “Lesson” is stated very explicitly in the book, but given how much in stands in contrast to the rich humanity spread throughout the book…well food for thought.

Has some amazing and sometimes stomach turning descriptions of violence, describing a neck being broken by a powerful Ynna as “the sound you would hear when stepping on a branch underneath some wet leaves”.
Climax was certainly a page turner.
Ultimately draws upon the classic tradition of the alien serving as the other and the mirror to look back upon ourselves. Having one of those aliens live among the humans.

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Book Review

Dark Ecology

Mini Book Review of Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence by Timothy Morton (2016)

I became aware of Timothy Morton through his popular book Hyperobjects. Morton contributes a fascinating and useful concept. Hyperobjects are “entities of such vast temporal and spatial dimensions that they defeat traditional ideas about what a thing is in the first place.” Climate change is his main (and most popular) example.

Dark Ecology makes many interesting, if scattered, uses of this hyperobject meta-concept. In the first section alone we get a hyperobject perspective on the concept Nature, on the concept of Species, on his concept of Agrilogistics, and a pretty convincing defense of the term “Anthropocene” in between cliff-note flourishes of ontology and epistemology. At a breakneck pace throughout Morton applies his signature gonzo-poetic philosophizing style to thinking “Future Coexistence”. The final section (The Third Thread) is a deeply insightful tour down through the psycho-emotional feels of ecological awareness. We fall through Guilt to Shame, and below Horror into that strange Joy… Its a wild read with at least one weird, loopy twist per page.