Saturday, September 11, 2010

Recommendations from my exam list...

I decided if anything the completion of my exams should at least result in some book recommendations for those who are intrigued but don't have the time to sludge through the material without much direction.

The Devil's Highway, By Luis Alberto Urrea

If you read one literary account of the tensions at work on the Mexican/American border this would be the one to read. Here we experience the border through the mythology and hallucinations/illusions of slowly sickened and dehydrated “walkers,” “wets,” “Oaxacas,” or “tonks” wandering the Arizona desert in search of their pick up site, nowhere to be found. Here the border region is filled with the dreamy and nightmarish sense bestowed on la frontera by authors like Gloria Anzaldua etc., but it is just as often the result of biological failure and heat exhaustion. Urrea painstakingly reconstructs their stories from the surviving walker’s testimonies, the accounts of those working in the unit that discovered them, the local histories of the region, the surviving families, and the repetitive and haunting repetition of indocumentados wandering in the region.

This book is important not only in its activist journalist mode and its attention to the details and gruesomeness of the state of the border, but also how it links every episode to some wider socio-political/cultural/economic situation that speaks to the breadth of the problems at work the universality of the aspirations that lead to them.

Drown, By Junot Díaz.

Short story collection from recent Pulitzer Prize winner, describes the deprivations and emptiness experience for both American Dominicanos and those back on the island. This central narrative grounds the pieces in the general trajectory of Dominican migration to the United States. Abandonment appears to be a consistent theme throughout the works, the relationships that are bound together by a barely articulable known quality (usually because of the colloquialism and posturing of the authors) and yet often filled with loneliness and isolation.

The title story, "Drown," describes a few fumbling homosexual encounters between a few barrio boys, one who successfully assimilates into a gay identity and a business school. The other of the pair, the narrator, fails to get anywhere and its trapped in a suspended place of "whispers" like that of a swimmer at the bottom of the pool. Whereas one of the boys is advanced and moving through his situation the other seems about to be consumed by the "silence" surrounds his life.

The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo,
By Oscar Zeta Acosta

This book dramatizes consistent problems at work in Latino narratives generally, particularly those of the 2nd generation in a way that eschews the mystifications of these conflicts in many of the proceeding authors. This autobiography is divided into the sections detailing a crisis at the heart of the protagonist’s life as a Legal Aid Lawyer and then a turn to the road, a journey. As the narrator pursues his journey he simultaneously retraces his roots along with the sources of his present misfortunes (a limp wang and an ulcerated stomach). There is an attempt to retrace steps through his home town El Paso and its sister city Ciudad Juarez, only leading to a conundrum of self. What begins as a search for personal and existential identity moves here to a collective and/or political identity (something to which he was indifferent before, Corky Gonzalez). Throughout the journey Acosta faces the choice between two “answers” for his ulcers: that of the psychiatrist the Fordist era regulatory mechanism of psychoanalysis and self-interrogation, and that of his “guru” drug dealer Ted Casey the representative of a counterculture’s desire for escape, to fade away in puffs of smoke even as he is clearly embedded in the excesses of wealth from his dealing. Ultimately he finds that neither offers satisfactory answers.

...And the Earth Did Not Devour Him, By Tomas Rivera

This is an astonishing and brilliant story that begins with a consciousness seeking clarity, but incapable of arranging his experiences with language--he is at a "loss for words." What results is a set of stories that seem to disaggregate into narrative and non-narrative voices, whose sources are relatively unidentified as if they were speaking from some sort of collective choral space (as in a Greek Chorus). At the end of this very short work the voices reaggregate as memories within this singular consciousness constricted underneath a house, riddled with fleas.

This piece depicts not only the misery, and brutality to which Mexican migrants and Mexican-Americans are exposed in their day to day movements in search of labor and dignity, and the ways they are shuttled around by the agricultural industry and the military to serve as cannon fodder. Similarly, the narrator finds himself at odds with and undermining the Catholic based superstitions of his past.

JR, By William Gaddis

This book is simultaneously a work of incomparable skill, intelligence, wit, and also one of the most difficult books to maintain your attention. a novel obsessed with the texture and phenomena of exchange. The novel demonstrates the vertiginousness and therefore insurmountability of finance capital as it divests workers of their pension funds to buy a brewery with poisonous beer, and a deadlock that regularly occurs in basic conversations. The novel is generally praised for its use of different forms of colloquial, American english, but this can at times make it rather difficult read as it spends a great deal of time immersed in various bureaucratic idioms and systemic inanity. This can make for some moments of sustained hilarity as well as frustration.

The Culture of Expediency
, George Yudice

This book represents to me the best summation and argument for the importance of discussing globalization at all as a separate field or set of unique questions that might guide analysis. Rather than arguing for the pure epiphenomenal character of culture in the global era, something of which many seem convinced. Yúdice argues that what is needed is to update the notion of culture beyond the Gramscian understanding of culture as a site of struggle as politics by another means.

In this context culture becomes a great protagonist even as the richness of the concept appears reduced. Culture functions as an expedient in two unique ways as a “panacea” to social conflict and as a vehicle for economic development (tourism, heritage industries, creative cities, minorities as “reinvigorating” areas through diversity, diversity itself as a new kind of political agency).

On the Shores of Politics, Jacques Ranciere

This work takes as its starting point the notion that we are at the end of an era where politics had a sort of effectivity it now lacks, it now fails to fulfill. Ranciére responds by again locating the political at the heart of the organization of society with a few addenda in terms of how the structural relationships functions with regard to social imparity and the like. For Ranciére the political can never be coextensive with the social, which is to say that one cannot be mobilized to completely remedy the ills of the other, there always be some remainder, new names for the people. The politics (the art or techne of politics) seeks to render itself irrelevant, seeks its own, end against this he poses the notion of the political which occurs only in these upheavals where a group w/out a “share” in the community, whose subordinated in that community steps forward to assert itself as equal, in a sense generating and imposing that equality. In so doing this group draws into sharp relief the division at the heart of the community (this can, and very often does include class politics), therefore for Ranciére the beginning of the political has nothing to do with institutions but in the organization of language and the virtual conflict zone organized by this new group speaking the in the name of the people, renaming the people.

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