Thursday, November 18, 2010

Books that changed my mind

This post follows up on the meme I picked up from Joshua Miller.

The purpose is not to list books that made me think more deeply about a subject (that's most books), or to list books that made me think a new thought (less books, but still important). This are books that specifically changed my mind about something.

(1) Marx's German Ideology. I picked this up early in college, and it destroyed the humanist, idealist leftist I had been until then. Like many a good leftist out of high school, I was very concerned with individualism and with the power of ideas. Basically, I had read Thoreau's "On Civil Disobedience" too many times. Marx allowed me to think a radical thought outside of the liberal tradition of individualism, and also made me think of collective productions of society. In so doing, I also developed a strong materialist outlook, that also dethroned my "knowledge is power" outlook.

(2) Maria Lugones' Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes: Theorizing Coalition Against Multiple Oppressions. It is hard to separate reading Maria's work from working with her. Either way, my early encounters with Maria and her work overturned a certain domination of a particular brand of poststructuralism on my thinking. In particular, I realized the violence inherent with the desire to get rid of identity, to leave behind all forms of identity politics. This, shall we say, nomadic desire for becoming-imperceptible ran into its own limitation. I was forced to confront how my desire to give up my name, history, and identity was strongly rooted in my desire of not being held accountable, of being able to think from what Haraway would call the god-trick. It also made me realize how vital identity, history, and names were for others. That demanding that people give that up or not be radical was the worst sort of reactionary claptrap.

(3) Subcomandante Marcos et al. Shadows of Tender Fury and William Haver's "The Ontological Priority of Violence". Again, I have trouble separating working with Bill Haver from reading Bill's work, but both of these works changed my mind on the issue of pacifism. I had considered myself to be a sort of generic pacifist, but I don't think I had ever really thought through the position. For example, I was convinced that the Zapatistas were already at war before the first gun had ever been picked up. I was convinced that there is an ontological relationship, that we need to pay attention to things like dignity and the need "to have been dangerous for a thousandth of a second" (see Haver's piece for commentary and citation). In other words, pacifism had become a way of delegitimizing certain survival strategies in genocidal cultures. Pacifism, as I had understood it, had become a way of furthering various forms of violences. This isn't really against pacifism, but rather against the sort of generic and default leftist position of something called pacifism.

(4) Agamben's Homo Sacer and State of Exception. I had really inherited Foucault's belief that sovereign power was mostly a reactive and repressive mechanism. Agamben really returns sovereign power to its properly productive functions.

(5) Ranciere's The Ignorant Schoolmaster, and really Ranciere's work more generally. The same sort of individualism that conflicted with Marx had never entirely left me. In particular, I was often given to beliefs of elitism, especially when it came to students. Well, an early encounter in grad school with this text really finally changed my mind. I am a pretty strong believer in egalitarianism at this point. Also, it was Ranciere's article, "Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man", that brought me off the fence about the importance of rights. Until then, I basically shifted my position on the question of rights from whatever the last thinker I had read felt about the subject. (Deleuze is against it, must be bad. Foucault is for it, must be good. Etc.). This tends to put me in some level of conflict with most of the other continental or critical animal scholars, almost all of whom echo Derrida's belief that the idea of rights does more to hurt animals than help other animals. This is not to say that I don't think the question and issue of rights doesn't need some sort of critical intervention, but I don't think it can go on the dust heap of history.

(6) Peter Singer's Animal Liberation. This book didn't change my mind in any of the obvious ways. By the time I read it, I had long been on the same side when it came to the animal question. What it changed my mind on was the issue of utilitarianism. Like most good radicals, particularly of a poststructuralist stripe, I had long felt that utilitarianism was some sort of clownishly evil system of 'ethics'. I am sure there are probably people reading this blog who basically feel the same way. After reading Animal Liberation, I decided there was a lot more going on with utilitarianism than I had ever allowed for. This is not to say that I became an utilitarian, but I began to more seriously engage the work of consequentialism.

I am sure there are more, but these are ones I have been able to come up with over the last 24 hours or so. Most of the things that have changed my mind have not been books, but conversations. Just saying, comments always open. Also, I'd love to see this meme spread. What books have changed your mind?