Recently (this fall—autumn being more tangible to me than the integer “year”) I have read, and been amazed by Golden Gulag, by Ruth Wilson Gilmore, which a friend in the collective Endnotes (whose new issue was just published) recommended to me. This book provides a detailed structural account, and analysis, of how, and why, the prison system in California has grown so massive, and so “modern.” And come to think of it I also read Angela Davis’s dagger of a book, Are Prisons Obsolete?, which does in 128 pages what Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow does in several hundred, but to be Davis’s reader and have that effect produced you probably need to either have already read Alexander’s excellent and very important book, or to be already a yes in response to Ms. Davis’s eponymous question, or both. Now that we’re creeping into the thick medium of a certain terrible reality, I also read Inside this Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prisons, and was thunder-struck by it, page by page and cumulatively. I went from there to Loic Wacquant’s Punishing the Poor and Prisons of Poverty. And then to Saint Genet, Jean-Paul Sartre’s beautiful “biography” of Genet (more biographies should be poetic-philosophical treatises that foreclose morality in favor of essence). Around that same time I “read at” Victor Hugo’s autobiographical/diaristic Things Seen, in which Hugo gives us his own lived encounters with History and World-Historical Individuals, as Hegel would call them, in moments like this one: “They executed the king with their hats on, and it was without taking his hat off that Sanson, seizing by the hair the executed head of Louis XVI, showed it to the people, and for a few moments let the blood from it stream onto the scaffold.”
Moving on from that encounter with the “real,” I was eager for the long-awaited October release of Frederic Jameson’s Antinomies of Realism. In fact I remember even kind of revving up for it by producing my own semiotic square for Michel Houllebecq’s The Map and the Territory, as I read that novel in late summer (the four sides being Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, The House of Prostitution, the House of Euthanasia). Anyhow, Jameson’s new work was foreshadowed by Perry Anderson’s article in the LRB in 2011, interrogating the “postmodern revival” of the historical novel. Lukács, who perhaps invented this literary category, pointed toward realism as the only legitimate novelistic mode into which to summon “History.” In that, all novels become historical novels when and if the present can be sufficiently apprehended as history by their authors. Jameson’s book, dense and meandering as it is, seems to offer multiple crucial antinomies. His conclusions are too complicated to get into here, but Cloud Atlas figures prominently among them, a book that greatly interests Jameson for its formal inventiveness, its pastiche of periods and styles, and for the fact that when all is said and done, despite its relativizing panache, it seems to transform history and ideas into meaning, and in particular, to have something to say about enslavement and emancipation. Thusly, the joyousness of art and the slaughterhouse of humankind both shine through. And Jameson seems to have enjoyed the movie version, too.
(Which I myself have not yet seen, but . . . there is always next year.)
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