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Oliver Wood (UK)

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The Filth
The Filth
by Grant Morrison
Edition: Paperback

3 of 9 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars a mess with no message, 23 Jun 2009
This review is from: The Filth (Paperback)
This book is, to put it bluntly; a mess. While the invisibles was always abit erratic and somewhat weighed down by the sum of its parts, you always felt like Morrison was in control and had some sort of coherent ending in mind.

'The Filth' by comparison feels like a ramshackle collection of all the half-baked, half-thought-out ideas that didnt quite make it into the invisibles. If there is a theme to this graphic novel it entirely passed me by. Some might argue that 'pornography' and 'sexual degradation' are the key themes at work here. Well yes, there are "some" references to pornography (including a lame pastiche of Max Hardcore half way through that goes nowhere) but referencing something 'now and then' does not a theme make.

It's a shame that such a worthwhile and interesting topic should be undersold this way. Pornography for the first time ever is something we all have access to at the click of mouse. We can service any perversion imaginable online while taking it completely for granted how difficult and obstructing it even a decade ago to fulfil our most mundane of sexual fantasies.

There's a social revolution of perversion going on right now and that derserves at least some sort of discussion. For some reason though, Morisson seems to believe that imagining Crumb-esque scenarios in which guys with 10-inch wangs spray their black juice over mothers with big boobies is the same thing as having that discussion - it isnt.

To be fair there is other stuff going on here: kiddies brainwashed by tv and the evil pharma-corps, pedo-paranoia and the threat of 'mob-justice' in Little Britain, the status quo (or 'status Q' as morisson calls it) and it's horrible unfairness to all the beautiful snowflakes and butterflies who have to live within its guilded cage. *very conscious at this point that im probably making this book sound much cooler than it actually is*

But all this really is just a GCSE rant against authority figures and men in suits. There's nothing wrong with cutting down the social order down to size in principle of course, but you have to do more than mutter under your breath about "dark forces keepin u down" which i think is pretty much all Morisson is doing here.
The saving grace of the Invisibles in this respect was that the eco-terrorists and social upstarts always got their comeuppance too; noone ever got away with the hubristic pomposity of their own pretentions.

The nearest you ever get to that sort of even-handedness here is the condensed 16 page 'version' of Moore's Watchmen; in which Morrison attempts to prove how aware he is that figures of justice can be just as corrupt, vain and abominable as the villians they covet.

Could anyone have really needed reminding of this? The comicbook industry has been pushing edgier titles for the past 20 odd years in order to re-tell this old tale. Hard to imagine who exactly would be blown backwards by these sorts of 'revelations'.

I really hope that beneath all the charm, sophistication, and raw creative power, Morrison isnt just another hacked off canteen anarchist. This novel certainly points in that direction, but having read much of the man's other work and checked out some of his lectures as well, im willing to give the benefit of the doubt and assume that this book just represents a bad patch he's currently working his way through.

Only check out this book if youre a very hardcore (in the non-pervy sense) fan of Morrison, otherwise id suggest skipping it altogether.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 17, 2010 3:53 PM GMT

The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise
The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise
by R. D. Laing
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.79

10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Psychiatric call to arms still relevant today, 18 April 2009
As a psychiatric-call-arms this book is abit of a dog's dinner. Apart from the very last chapter everything here is taken from direct transcripts of Laing's lectures throughout the early 60s. The style & approach changes quite rapidly then: The first 3 chapters are abit Irving Goffman with possibly a hint of heidegger thrown in, and its probably only until chapter 4 that Laing starts to write in his own voice and becomes profound by way of personal experience; as opposed to whatever he was reading the week before.

And do you know, for all the accusations of self-indulgent anti-conformism, Laing is just about the most lucid, compassionate, rational and pragmatic philosopher of psychiatry imaginable. Once he gets going.

His main thesis also benefits from being devastatingly simple: If you want to know the best way to treat someone who's 'gone mad' ask someone who's 'been mad'. If you want to get better, allow yourself to go through the process of being unwell. If, as a culture, you want to be able to deal with your own mental spaces, give it a context with which it can be explored.

Of course even in 2009 this is still largely unrealised stuff. Psychotherapy has perhaps become somewhat more 'client-orientated', non-judgemental. We dont accept the dogmatic extremism of behaviourism quite like we used to, and can now acknowledge our private spaces, to some limited extent, once more.

Although this is all pretty meagre 'progress' from where we started out. We still treat mentally ill patients much the same as well did before, still erroneously refer to them as being 'ill', and in mainstream academia physicalism looks set to bring the spectre of behaviourism back to life all over again.

It's all abit depressing, and other than Szasz you do wonder where the much needed voices of descent have gone. Perhaps it's because as Laing suggests: the interior life is just something we're fundmanetally uncomfortable with as a culture. How often for instance do you talk about your dreams with your friends? Even amongst close relatives refering to your internal dramas in a public setting can still be regarded as 'socially deviant'.

There's something about 'experience' that continues to bug us. Is it too unquantifiable to satisfy our occidental addiction for charts and statistics? Possibly. Although i expect you could point to any number of social/political causes for our failure to engage with ourselves. In mean time however, you cant do much worse than picking up this book and having a wee think for yourself.

The proto-Irvine Welsh ramble at the end is pretty good as well.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 25, 2011 1:03 PM GMT

Angry Candy
Angry Candy
by Harlan Ellison
Edition: Paperback

3.0 out of 5 stars Missing an original and consistent 'voice', 16 April 2009
This review is from: Angry Candy (Paperback)
Im not sure that you could call this collection of short stories 'sci-fi', there's abit of everything here - Hard fantasy, Gumshoe detective, new weird, sci-fi lite, high brow lit.

So which genre is Harlan best at? Im not really sure. Which isnt to say that i think he excels at every literary style he attempts because i dont think he does. What i think he's very proficient at is adopting a distinct and separate voice for each style he takes on. And by 'voice' i mean imitating most of his literary friends/heroes.

Fantasy pieces are full of Tolkeinesque neologisms where youre buggered if you can tell the 'subjects' from the 'objects'. Self-consciously philosophical pieces are Borges if he spelt it all out for you and held your hand. Sci-fi stories are straight up Vonnegut minus the humility and wit, the hardboiled wisecrackin' pieces arent 'Chandleresque' theyre just 'Chandler'.

Not that this makes any of the pieces in the collection unreadable, it's the author that's unconvincing, not the stories. The obvious standout pieces here are 'Laugh Track' and 'The Region Between' both interesting enough in their own right to warrant a peek at this compendium. With 'Region Between' probably as good as someone like Ellison is ever likely to get. Infact, it's one of the few stories where he manages to find his way the metaphysical panopticon he's created for himself, Something that can be rarely said of the others where what starts out promisingly ineffable and out of scale usually ends up condensed and underdeveloped.
In other words it's a bit like watching an episode of Outer Limits, which shouldnt be surprising because Harlan wrote most of them.

Still, alot of these criticisms could be leveled at the medium itself. When youre writing short stories ideas often will play second fiddle to the slightly tougher demands of pace and brevity, that's just the inherent hazard of the genre. And probably why to many short story telling is still considered something of a high-art form in its own right.

Does Harlan belong amongst the other greats of this niche artform then? Not really, at best he's a competent Vonnegut impressionist, at worst Dean Koontz with a superiority complex. But you can certainly see why the Americans are so keen to gush all over his transatlantic whimsy. He plays that New England polymath, almost-got-into-Harvard, can-name-a-few-capital-cities-in-Europe part that seems to go down so well over there very very well. And David Foster Wallace based an entire career round that, so hey, why break the mold?

If you want fully developed ideas and less of the pretense though, id say yer man for short science fiction is still Ted Chiang.

The View from Nowhere
The View from Nowhere
by Thomas Nagel
Edition: Paperback
Price: £22.99

22 of 32 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars a perfectly defined problem with no perceivable solution, 30 Mar 2009
This review is from: The View from Nowhere (Paperback)
The main thesis of this book is that objective/subjective perspectives create an unavoidable tension which affects virtually all aspects of philosophical enquiry. Where Nagel excells is in outlining the problems that such radically different perspectives can create; particularly within the fields of ethics and existentialism. Where he is considerably less affective (possibly to the point of being outright awful) is in providing a solution to these problems.
In almost every area of philosophy - metaphysicals, politics, ethics, Nagel again and again fails to resolve any of the tension between these radically opposed perspectives. What is perhaps more frustrating however, is the obfuscating waffle routinely emloyed to fill the gap between the definition of the problem, and the solution that never comes.

You only have to read Nagel's famous "what is it like to be a bat?" to see what a severe problem of Nagel's this has always from the very beginning of his career. The descriptions of consciousness in that essay are amongst the most lucid descriptions ever commited to print. His last ditch attempt to provide a normative argument however, reprensents the very worst in pseudo-intellectual waffle.
Sadly the exact same is true here - the descriptions of existential crisis and ethical dilemma are the best you are likely to encounter, but Nagel does not seem to have the intellectual capacity to provide a coherent precise solution to any of the problems he outlines. But since so much of the text is this book is cloaked in dense, impenetrable sophistry, many will probably come away thinking he's actually put some kind of argument forward. Look very closely though, and you'll see that the most he ever commits to is an anti-physicalist, anti-utitliarian stance. Beyond that, i believe its almost impossible to pin Nagel down on anything.

This is a great shame because the object/subjective dichotomy is the 'fly in the ointment' for just about any philosophical position going. Unlike Nagel however, most philosophers either do not seem to be aware of this problem, or do not want to accept that the problem exists in the first place due to the disastrous consequences it can have on a philosophical project once consciously acknowledged.

This is partly i think why the physicalist programme has proven so popular over the years. While we can never meaningfully define consciousness (the first person perspective) with third person tools, physicalists like Dennett at least provide a solution, the possiblity of philosophical and scientific progress.
While I believe Nagel's rather than Dennett's position has the weight of evidence and reason on its side, there is never any chance of such a position being popular when philosophers like Nagel throw their hands up in the air whenever pushed to provide an alternative method to the brute accumulation of 3rd person facts.

Until someone comes along and attempts to do this (and Nagel certainly isnt) we are stuck with the prevailing philosophical dogma: 'neural events are identical with mental states'. Which while empricially unverifable, at least offers some sort of beacon of hope for those who want to get to the bottom of consciousness.

While Nagel in this book has more than competently illustrated the inadaquacies of philosophical atomism, he has as yet i believe, managed to provide to a coherent alternative solution.
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 1, 2012 1:04 PM GMT

Arguing for Atheism: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion
Arguing for Atheism: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion
by Robin Le Poidevin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £23.99

1 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great book. But no substitute for a summary or overview., 15 Mar 2009
Not so much a review of the book itself, which is actually very well written for what it's attempting to do, but of its primary use on the Leeds University Philosophy course. Listing a heavily weighted argument for atheism on a Philosophy of Religion course makes perfect sense and is absolutely fine. However setting such a text as the *main course* reading for such a module is irresponsible, and to my mind not particularly conducive to proper learning.
Just for the record im not a theist, so id be writing exactly the same if this book was a heavily slanted argument in favour of God. The point is however, a religious philosophy course should always aim to give the student a fair and balanced *overview* of both the theistic and atheistic positions. Such a course should not be used as a opportunity for lecturer to disseminate his or her personal views on the subject to the point of almost completely drowning out all other voices.

As i said - as a book in its own right this is perfectly acceptable stuff. But not for an introductory module.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 17, 2011 7:42 AM BST

The Angry Island: Hunting the English
The Angry Island: Hunting the English
by A.A. Gill
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars hunting AA Gill, 29 May 2008
Is there such a thing as 'national character'? probably not, at least according to sociologists. But this isnt a book about facts its a book of opinions which Gill wisely states from the outset. This sets the course for an interesting and beguiling journey into 'englishness' which takes in everything from class, queues, regional dialect, prince charles and the cotswolds.
While Gill does a competent job of smacking all of these topics into shape, one of the reoccurring problems of reading this book is in trying to work out to what extent Gill actually believes any of this amounts to a genuine portrayal of the english.
To be fair though, this book was never really marketed as a meditation on the human condition and doesnt ever pretend to be. At the same time you often wonder if Gill himself hasnt been taken in by the hypnotic persuasion of his prose and genuinely bought into the idea that this settles the score for good. At other times the text barley stretches beyond the facetious, with the subject matter frequently acting as little more than an arbitrary training ground for metaphor and aphorism to run amok in.
As a complete body of work it infact all adds up to a very weird blend of bluster, denial and diffusion. Bigotry-inspired rants are offset by brisk sermons on the value of good manners and political correctness, ignorant generalities are frequently counteracted by intermittent bursts of insightful tolerance.
Although to read anything by Gill has always required an implicit understanding on the reader's part that the message doesnt really lies within the opinions themselves, it in the contradictions that Gill tells you everything you need to know.
On this sort of scale however, contradictions can quickly turn into an exercise in evasion, a desire to avoid detection and prevent being caught out at all cost. What emerges from all this infact, isnt so much a portrait of an island but of a writer who doesnt want to be known.
I suspect the truth is Gill never quite got past the Tattler teething stage, never quite got the hang of dressed down personalities and lives lived for simple virtues and unsung pleasures. There's something about these common archetypes that coax the snobbish bully out of its cage every time, whether it manifests itself as one of the many prose-rich polemics against the countryside or as one his strange attacks on environmental lobbiests.
But a keen eye and mind knows these views are ridiculous, and so a vocal distaste for the very stable these views are born out of is often framed parallel to even the most hyperventilating of grievances. A less talented writer might say 'im not racist but..', Gill does the more sophisticated thing and distances himself from his right-wing fanbase (they send him a frightening amount of fanmail) Unfair of them to appropriate him as one of their own of course. Gill is only intolerant for effect, not by political persuasion. Duh.

If all this sounds like a case of schizophrenia, then its probably because it is. Something easily hidden when youre knocking out forgettable weekly column inches, not so straightforward to pull off when youre writing a book.
This of course assumes that you're already familiar with Gill's broadsheet stuff, and that like me you'll approach this book as an autobiographical case study of the author rather than as a national case study of the english. Either way the lasting impression is of a superb stylist who for whatever reason cant quite get his opinions together. As a writer Gill's biggest flaw still seems to rest upon his stubborn belief that it's his mock-offensiveness that makes him an author worth reading. Like a virtuoso guitarist smashing up his Fender for the 53rd time it's this misplaced faith in theatrics over intrinsic talent that truly angers, the wasted talent that won't commit.
So in typically literary fashion 'Hunting the English' sets out to find something that existed within the author all along; the petulant inability to look inside, to admit defeat, or even to understand often so characteristic of the people of this island, is something Gill needed never have left home to discover.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 9, 2008 5:15 PM BST

The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Theory & History of Literature)
The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Theory & History of Literature)
by Jean-Francois Lyotard
Edition: Paperback
Price: £13.79

12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A frustrating blend of sophistry and sharp prose, 22 Mar 2008
For anyone interested in postmodern theory this book offers a frustrating blend of obscurified sophistry, succinct prose and conceptual deadends.
Lyotard follows the freeform-association school of stylism where ideas roll on for a bit only to fork off, unexpectedly intersect, come to an abrupt halt, then just as suddenly shoot off in another direction.

Of course any method such of this will, if the writer is sufficiently intelligent (certainly no problems there) almost by accident rather than design generate a fairly decent number of provocative lucid ideas. In this sense Lyotard is no exception. The underlying problem with this method however is that for ideas to make sense and achieve coherency generally requires them be followed through to their logical conclusion and ultimate end.
And it's this lack of coherency that, despite the snatches of intermittent brilliance here and there, lets the postmodern condition down.
This is frustrating because postmodernism is really not atall a difficult theory to understand and there's certainly no reason why it should be obscured beneath layers of densely packed inscrutable prose.
For those uninitiated: Post modernism is simply the sub-division and specialisation of knowledge. As society progresses the knowledge it generates and acquires increasingly becomes context bound to exclusive disciplines, fragmenting off into what E.O.Wilson would call 'borderland sciences'.
The end result is that any sort of unified consensus, or 'grand narrative' becomes meaningless and incomprehensible by default.
Instead we simply have lots of 'little narratives' with which to arrange and construct our localised/self-referential ideas.

There are of course many interesting and mportant questions that arise out of all of this, namely: what role does the politician/religious leader/nationalist have left in the absence of these unifying 'grand narratives'?
What happens to a society which can no longer tell stories to itself that will be meaningful and relevant for the whole?
What occurs to a psyche which is increasingly called upon to hold mutually mis-aligned ideas about a single substance or object?
These are all basic questions that need to be addressed, all of which however are either clumsily talked around or just side-stepped altogether. Instead society and its inventions are presented as models of efficiency - always seeking to maximise stability and minimise instability.
Which there is a very convincing case to be made for, unfortunately its a point which isnt particularly related to postmodernism atall, or if it is, Lyotard never really gets himself round to connecting it to the original premise.
Again it's this lack of intellectual transparency and 'interconnectedness' that lets this book down.
A more fitting title may have been 'postmodernism: a collection of ideas in no particular order'.
Some interesting and inspiring thoughts here and there of course no doubt (hence the 2 stars) but altogether poorly arranged and badly structured.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 25, 2014 12:26 PM GMT

The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History
The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History
by Howard K. Bloom
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.50

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not as critical as i hoped but a great read, 22 Jan 2007
This book promises to be a groundbreaking exploration into gestalts and the nature of the 'superorganism'.

And it is; the first 5 chapters are like a revelation, you feel as though youre being ushered into a new world of enlightenment, and by the first 100 pages or so youve left the now rather backward seeming 'modern' world behind and are part of the new intellectual elite.

However as is the problem with books that rely on a simple idea, the book quickly runs out of steam at the half way mark and begins to over-rely on the anecdotal rather than the empirical.

Its a shame because in the first half there's some very strong empirical evidence for his central idea in group selection theory. But he simply doesnt pursue it enough and ends up relying instead on recounting lengthly episodes of world history.

Not that this isnt enjoyable, my general knowledge of history is shaky at best so this book felt like a refresher course in the numerous ancient civilisations that have reined.

The problem is though that youve probaly heard it all before, the same goes for alot of the animal behaviour/psychology experiments that are scattered throughout the book as well. Alot of the evidence used is really common knowledge that you could probably find in a modestly stocked local library.

This is a disapointment as given the size of the bibliography i was expecting Bloom to draw on some incredibly esoteric and interesting sources. Not that he doesnt - he does, but very very rarely.

I understand though that this is a book intended to appeal to the casual reader so i am prehaps being alittle too harsh, and have maybe allowed my expectations to get the better of me here.

However i think a genuine criticism that can be leveled at the book is how astonishingly sloppy the last 7 chapters or so are.

Bloom almost seems to assume that hes fully hooked you in with his ideas by this point and lets rip with any old assertion he can dream up and correlates anything with everything in a final atempt to solidify the credibility of his theory in your mind.

To use one example he atempts to correlate the Japanese work ethic to their increased life-expectancy in comparison to the American population.

Of course there are so many factors involved in life expectancy that to attribute the cause to one sole factor only ends up making Bloom appear overly hyperbolic in his evidence gathering.

Not only do the latter chapters get extremely sloppy, the book suddenly transforms into a direct call to americans to 'watch out' and not lose their position in the global pecking order.

I cant really blame Bloom for wanting to protect the interests of his own country, however refering to the reader as if they too are an American citizen throughtout most of the book comes over as extremely patronizing.

As someone well educated in anthropology and sociology youd expect Bloom not to make such a rudimentary error as this.

Its as if he never expected anyone to read his book outside of the US, either hes overly modest or hes commited the first sin of anthropology - not being able to see beyond his own culture.

All these things aside i would still recommend this book to anyone, i just dont think he quite makes the solid case for society as a superorganism that he thinks he has.

The idea behind the theory is prehaps more than the sum of the evidence that supports it at this point i think its fair to say.

Id definitely recommend using this book as a steppingstone for further (more critical) research and a means to expand your own ideas of society and the superorganism.

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