Two books I recently put down without finishing

Book reviewing has a bias in favor of books we’ve actually read, but sometimes it may also be revealing which books we start but don’t finish. Two that I’ve put aside this year:

  1. Rage and Time by Sloterdijk — it struck me that this was the same basic argument as Fukayama’s The End of History and the Last Man and that his analysis of resentment was not very likely to add significantly to Nietzsche.
  2. Benjamin’s -abilities by Sam Weber — I got about a third of the way through this one before I got really sick of being re-convinced of the importance of words ending in -ability for understanding Benjamin’s work. Undeniably a detailed and rigorous reading of Benjamin, this book winds up feeling plodding and repetitious, something that is perhaps understandable given that it is assembled out of forty years worth of Weber’s writings on Benjamin. I will likely return to it for insight on particular writings and themes in Benjamin, but reading it cover to cover was less than ideal.

What about you? Have you set any book aside recently?

28 thoughts on “Two books I recently put down without finishing

  1. Yeah, I got a few Sloterdijk books for X-mas last year and just can’t seem to get started with them. I liked Terror From the Air and the Theory of the Post-War Periods was okay but Rage could have been better.

    I love how my first impression of Sloterdijk is the guy Zizek says “is not one of us, but still he is not a complete idiot.” He always seems to refer to him this way. I wonder if that pisses Sloterdijk off?

  2. I think Sloterdijk’s only good when he gets to recount obscure pieces of knowledge a la Agamben but lacks in the “making conclusions” department as they are either banal or incomprehensible.

    Rage and Time is pretty bad – it opens well, but it gets worse and worse and ends with a rather embarrassing “get off my lawn, you angry young immigrants!” rant…

    I’ve recently put down Badiou’s The Communist Hypothesis – I am not sure what exactly is the purpose of that little book, but everything about it just rubbed me the wrong way, including the deceptive marketing tricks of it’s size and color…

  3. I think Miguel de Beistegui’s review of “Rage and Time” elucidates well the main problems of the book:

    Click to access dst4.pdf

    It’s so true that, despite all his anticapitalism, Sloterdijk is actually a reformist. Also, I found the last bit on machines really intriguing!

  4. Sorry, I meant to say that, for all his dissatisfaction with our current economy of eros, that is capitalism, his proposal that we should instead establish an economy of thumos is undermined by the fact that if this is achieved in his reformist fashion then the economoy of eros, which he wants replaced, will still persist.

  5. This “economy of thymos” is the stupidest part of the book – not only is it basically Fukuyama’s misread Hegel nonsense (as Adam points out), it’s also a kind of “capitalists should be more giving in order to care for their esteem” bullshit, a kind of nostalgic “back in the day rich people were also very charitable and we lost that” throw-back which make little or no sense in the context of the book’s “argument”…

  6. I’m ashamed to admit this, but the last book I did this to was Mary Jane Rubenstein’s Strange Wonder. It’s not really fair for me to say this, because I only got through the introduction, and it was more a question of time constraints. I started near the end of my winter break, whilst working 30 hours a week, and then got sidetracked for a few days, and then a friend came to visit, and then I started a semester in which I’m working on both Hegel and Marx, as well as Husserl, and that’s consuming all of my reading-time.

    I’m actually planning to start Weber’s book soon; I’ve got an entire queue of stuff on Benjamin that I want to get through, but I’m not sure where to turn first (I plan to write my term paper on him for Marx and Critical Theory).

  7. I also didn’t like “Rage and Time”, not only for the political aspects (“everyone must learn to stop resenting CEOs who just give and give”) aspect.

    Instead, like Mikhael, I also found the ‘thumos’ chapter really bewildering. Thus, on the one hand, I also had dim memories of Fukyama, but in the case of the latter (who gets the Platonic term via Leo Strauss in dialogue with Kojeve), I remember the term having the opposite significance, even if it was used in the context of a very similar (right-wing) argument.

    Thus: I may be misremembering this, but doesn’t Kojeve (and in a way Fukyama) say something about ‘thumos’ persisting anachronistically in the modern age? I thought it was part of what was going on in the famous passage on Japanese snobbery that Agamben glosses, i.e. that -we HAVEN’t put aside ‘thumos’ (look around and you’ll see all the macho posturing, people being easily roused to indignation and the sense that the sacred has somehow been violated) it’s just that it’s ‘in force without significance’.

    Thus, it was very odd to see Sloterdijk kind of do a “whither thumos?” I mean, how has it vanished, exactly?

    @Mikhael, as someone who loves Badiou, I also think that the ‘Communist Hypothesis’ is probably his worst book.

    Anything where he opens by quoting his plays is a bad sign.

  8. I really liked The Communist Hypothesis, even its design aspect and the slightly dodgy play. The play seemed to me to have really interesting ideas, though who knows if it can be pulled off well or if its well-written qua play.

    Lately all the books I’ve read have really grabbed me, but the last one I remember not finishing was Life of Moses by Gregory of Nyssa. Didn’t see the point.

  9. I had the same experience with the Sloterdijk book (R&T)!!! And I thought i was alone in getting bored. I have to regularly take week to fortnight breaks whil reading Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason, which is one of my favourites but badly needs an editor. Then there’s Milbank’s needlessly verbose style…

  10. Jameson’s Valences of the Dialectic (another I could’ve mentioned in this post) convinced me that Sartre is actually way more interesting than I thought, particularly Critique of Dialectical Reason. Not sure that I’ll actually do anything with that information, though.

  11. Not to belabor this point, but since Anthony (and I think Brad previously) liked Badiou’s CH, I wonder if I may inquire as to why? I had the following issues with it, if it helps:

    1) Introduction tried to explain why we need these texts now and in this particular order, but failed, I thought. These are separate essays written for different occasions and I couldn’t understand why they were published under the title and why in this order?

    2) I’ve read The Meaning of Sarkozy right after CH to see if I’m missing something about this “communist hypothesis” and it’s even more confused there. What is particularly novel about Badiou’s discussion of communism? Wherever he talks about it, he talks about it the way everyone else talks about communism – is it just that business of moving beyond all the previous discourses? But how? What is his particular plans?

    3) Does Badiou have to introduce his own philosophical vocabulary in order to address the issues of communism especially after I’ve reread his turgid “what I call X” and “what I refered to as Y” explanations I still didn’t see how it helped me with the issies at hand. Does one need to learn Badiouian language to understand his points? And why is the prose so bad – is that how he normally writes or is a bad translation?

    4) I thought his 1968 essay (in the heat of the moment) was the best piece, but it had nothing to do with “communism” at all.

    5) Personal tick: I hate it when people release their collected essays and for whatever marketing reason inform us that those are actually new books, hate it. Especially if there is no real connection between the separate pieces.

  12. I actually have a bizarre ability to put down novels for months at a time and then return to them. Tree of Smoke sat idle for three months, then I picked it back up and loved it — The Girlfriend read it right after me and loved it, too. My current record is Middlesex, which I put down for over a year and then picked back up and finished. (This is assuming that I don’t “pick” Ulysses “back up” after its current amazingly epic period of abandonment.)

  13. This is assuming that I don’t “pick” Ulysses “back up” after its current amazingly epic period of abandonment

    i reckon this happens to 99% of people who start this book

  14. Mikhail,

    Well, you have to admit you are notoriously grumpy about books. Or maybe I have lower standards.

    1) I was fine with the way the texts were ordered. The “historical sequence” (or whatever he calls it) seemed to me to fit with the idea that communism is also a hypothesis tested in different contexts.

    2) I don’t care if there is anything novel about his discussion of communism. Is that a criteria?

    3) Why shouldn’t a philosopher be able to use his own terms? Again, didn’t bother me, especially because I broadly understand his system and find it often a useful way for thinking about these things. I also didn’t think the prose was bad at all. There were a few points, I suppose, where a sentence stuck out, but… so what. Both of the translators are formidable, so I don’t think that’s an issue.

    4) Yes it did.

    5) Fair enough, even if it seemed like there was a connection between all these pieces.

  15. “You have to admit you are notoriously grumpy about books”

    That’s certainly a valid point. I was hoping that it wasn’t just my expectations though. Certainly, I don’t have the grasp of Badiou’s vocabulary so it’s likely I found it bothersome having to learn it (or rather, I found it bothersome that I must learn new vocabulary in order to understand the argument). Surely, there’s nothing wrong with philosophers using their own terminology.

    I suppose I did expect to learn something new about “communism” or “communist hypothesis” – I don’t think it’s necessary unfair to assume that if a known author writes a book about communism, puts in a pocket format a la Mao’s Little Red Book, that I expect to learn about his take on communism. In any case, it’s probably just a matter of different expectations and me not having much experience with Badiou thinking it’ll be like reading Marx (since Badiou take on Paris Commune, for example) or something…

  16. This is a strange question – Ulysses-related – but has anyone given an audio version a chance? I’ve read that Joyce estate actually had strict control regarding who was going to record it and how (but I think this only relates to Donal Donnelly’s version, I don’t know about the Naxos one), but the result is rather astonishing. I’m sure your local library has a copy somewhere, mine did. And, yes, it’s unabridged on 40 CDs.

  17. Mikhail,

    You are aware that most authors don’t have much say in how their books are marketed, especially in other languages. If you look at the French cover it’s just a normal book. Actually, it’s the fifth volume in his Circonstances series, which are collections of his essays. Not sure if that would get past some of the annoyances.

    I read the book with a reading group in Chicago and many of the undergrads in the group found the book opened them up to thinking about communism. So, there is that to keep in mind (i.e. not everyone has read “what everyone has to say about communism”).

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