TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT December 2008

books

THE BEST BOOKS OF 2008

15 SCHOLARS, CRITICS, WRITERS, AND ARTISTS CHOOSE THE YEAR’S OUTSTANDING TITLES.

MICHAEL HARDT

The financial crisis of fall 2008 is one symptom of a transition in the nature and form of global order. The most important question this transition raises is what new possibilities it is opening up; but before asking that, one has to understand also what the transition is closing down. Two of the best books I have read in the past year, Giovanni Arrighi’s Adam Smith in Beijing: Lineages of the Twenty-First Century (Verso) and Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Picador), help us situate the current crisis within this larger period of transition and recognize what is coming to an end. Arrighi details the exhaustion of US unilateralist strategies over the global political and economic order, and Klein demonstrates the failures and inevitable bankruptcy of neoliberalism.

Arrighi analyzes in broad historical terms the passage from US global hegemony to what he conceives of as a coming Asian age. His primary aim is to identify the nature of China’s ascent as the center of a new global order, which will be qualitatively different from the current global order in decline. I am intrigued but finally unconvinced by Arrighi’s claim of an emerging “world-market society based on greater equality among the world’s civilizations,” which he articulates through an attentive and creative reading of Adam Smith.

I find more interesting, however—and more relevant to the current financial crisis—Arrighi’s reading of US global hegemony, which after a century of rule has entered its twilight phase. Although some US leaders at the opening of the new millennium hoped to realize a “new American century” with fantasies of unilateral power over global affairs, the military failure in Iraq, the exhaustion of US moral and political authority in the world, and now the dramatic economic and financial crisis all testify to the end of US unilateralism. The United States still matters, obviously, and it continues to be more powerful than any other nation-state, but it no longer has the capacities to dictate global affairs unilaterally. Arrighi situates this period of transition in parallel to the decline of British global rule a century earlier. The dollar, for example, may today be in the position of the pound sterling in the early twentieth century, which continued to be used as an international currency three to four decades after the end of British hegemony. The ghosts of US hegemony may still wander about for several years, possibly even wreaking havoc, but it is already dead.

Klein also helps us situate the current crisis in a larger history but does so in a rather briefer time frame. Her central argument is that neoliberal economic policies—which combine radical free-market ideology with the privatization of public wealth, the reduction of social welfare, and the deregulation of economic activity—have not been instituted democratically but rather imposed violently in countries throughout the world in moments of crisis or shock. The shocks sometimes take military form, as in the case of General Pinochet’s coup d’état in Chile in 1973, which ushered in neoliberal economic policies there, or the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which similarly attempted to create for the country a “pure” neoliberal system after the slate of previous Iraqi social and economic structures had been wiped clean. At other times the shocks are not planned, such as the 2004 Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but these disasters, too, provided opportunities for privatizing public property and wealth while imposing neoliberal strategies.

Klein also makes clear along the way that everywhere it is established neoliberalism fails to fulfill its claims to generate wealth and stability. Its promoters blame such failures on the fact that the neoliberal economy is never “pure” enough and requires further privatization and deregulation. Looking at the failures of neoliberalism gives us a helpful key, I think, to begin sorting out the causes of the current crisis. It is a financial crisis, of course, that has in part resulted from neoliberalism’s radical deregulation and removal of traditional institutional safeguards. (And one bizarre irony of Klein’s argument is that neoliberal strategists are surely ready to use this catastrophe, as well, for further privatizations, even though neoliberal strategies were themselves the cause of the crisis.) But what we are currently facing is also, and perhaps more profoundly, an economic crisis of neoliberalism. Neoliberal strategies are primarily aimed, in fact, not at production but at redistribution, transferring existing public and common wealth into private hands. It might be useful to read the extraordinary and risky debts that continue to drive this economic crisis—housing debts, first and foremost, but also credit card and other personal debt—in terms of popular demands that replace in some sense declining wages and the lack of social services, demands for some of the wealth, in other words, that neoliberalism has taken away. Recognizing the subjective forces driving the crisis rather than merely its objective, technical causes may help us see some of the avenues that could be opened in this period of transition.

Such an analysis, however, would require us to go well beyond what Arrighi and Klein offer. The next step may have to be taken by these subjective forces themselves, organized in movements. In the coming years we may see various forms of protest and refusal when people become aware of how they are being forced to pay the bill for neoliberalism’s catastrophic failure—not only through housing foreclosures and personal bankruptcy but also through further budget cuts in education, transportation, and a series of other social services. Such movements will be necessary to realize the possibilities opened by the current financial crisis.

Michael Hardt is a professor in the program in literature at Duke University and the coauthor, with Antonio Negri, of Empire (2000) and Multitude (2004).

BRIONY FER

An empty swimming pool drained of water; the burned-out shell of a Chinese fighter plane; abandoned apartments; a ruined casino, still glittering in its devastation: This is the landscape of J. G. Ballard’s childhood in wartime Shanghai. It is described in his recent memoir, Miracles of Life (Harper Perennial), with characteristic detachment—the same volatile mix of understated language and hallucinatory dislocation that we find in his fiction. Or rather, it is his fiction that sets alight these autobiographical fragments of his life: postapocalyptic scenes running into the emotional desert of England after the war. With ferociously succinct insight, he charts the historical processes of obsolescence that beset a whole way of life—the British class system—and a country that was still pathetically in thrall to its former colonial status. Along the way, there is quite a lot about Ballard’s clearly intense interest in art and artists: his first liberatory encounters with Surrealism, the hugely significant episode that was the “This Is Tomorrow” exhibition at London’s Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1956, his admiration for Richard Hamilton, his friendship with Eduardo Paolozzi, the revelations of Francis Bacon, his love of Carlo Crivelli in the National Gallery. You feel that some vital part of his writing came out of these encounters with art in the first place, so it is hardly surprising that his writing has, in turn, been important for so many artists: most obviously, Robert Smithson, who shared Ballard’s sense of the hallucinatory intoxications of dystopia; but so too, if perhaps more subtly, artists who have always been interested in time and desuetude, such as Ed Ruscha and, more recently, Tacita Dean; and many more. On several occasions Ballard talks of his writing as a way of making sense of things, as if writing can, in some small measure at least, get near the terrible logic of death. But at the same time, as is clear from these autobiographical reflections, writing is a testament to survival and the impulse for life. Yet it is hardly reparative, and the question Ballard made his own in the early 1960s still resonates: “What if the everyday environment was itself a huge mental breakdown . . . ?” However familiar the weird psychic terrain inside of Ballard’s head may be, that thought still stops me in my tracks.

Briony Fer is a professor of the history of art at University College London.

JONATHAN CRARY

Of the many books I’ve read or skimmed in the past seven years that attempted to get inside the social and political debacles of the present, none has had the chilling clarity and historical discernment of Sheldon S. Wolin’s Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton University Press). Building on his fifty years as a political theorist and proponent of radical democracy, Wolin here extends his concern with the extinguishing of the political and its replacement by fraudulent simulations of democratic process. While post–September 2001 developments are broadly addressed, Wolin’s scope extends back to the 1780s and the writing of the US Constitution. This reach allows him to emphasize the fleetingly rare actuality of democracy in American life and to demonstrate the intrinsic incompatibility of equality and commonality with both corporate and state power. His survey of the period from 1945 to the present provides the uncompromising core of his main argument: that totalitarianism is the most appropriate designation for present-day America, and that, as a system of power, it has available to it unprecedented technologies of control, intimidation, and mass manipulation. Unlike many current writers who brandish the F-word with varying degrees of persuasiveness, Wolin is disturbingly convincing in his careful articulation of an “inverted” totalitarianism. In some ways his argument reads like a circumspect updating of Guy Debord’s “diffuse” form of spectacle, as opposed to its “concentrated” forms: i.e., a system that does not overthrow existing political arrangements but parasitically occupies and empties them of efficacy: that has no need of charismatic leadership, collective mobilization, or compulsory fervor but operates through individual privatization, demoralization, and uncertainty. One crucial goal of this American totalitarian model is to render impossible any upsurge of populism, or collective expressions of common interests. It remains to be seen whether recent global financial events or domestic electoral shifts will simply confirm the unassailability and resilience of the system Wolin portrays, or whether they might produce significant fissures in it, along with more local openings in which the political might flourish.

Jonathan Crary is Meyer Schapiro professor of modern art and theory at Columbia University, New York.

ARTHUR C. DANTO

When Marcia Tucker turned sixty, her husband’s gift to her was a course on stand-up comedy at NYU. She threw herself into stand-up as she did everything else in her life, playing the clubs and inventing a comic persona, Miss Mannerist, who, wearing a fright wig and goofy glasses, entertained her colleagues with art-world zingers at professional functions. Tucker was a fierce advocate for new art—the founder and director of the New Museum of Contemporary Art and, before that, curator of painting and sculpture at the Whitney Museum, which, under her prodding, assumed the cultural responsibility of bringing to the larger public’s attention what was happening at the creative edge of American art in the 1970s. In an art world in which the critical establishment consisted largely of conservative sourpusses, Tucker’s defining attitude was “to find out what [a] work’s terms were, and then see if I could stretch my own understanding to meet them.” But she also struggled to enlarge the concept of the museum, to open it up to the new and the difficult, and to deal with the successive challenges presented it by feminism, multiculturalism, and AIDS, not to mention the tremendous changes in the philosophy of art itself. She was a tireless promoter of the challenging, the far-out, and the risky. “Bad Painting” (1979) and “Bad Girls” (1994) were only two of the shows she put on at the New Museum that broke new ground.

Tucker began writing her memoir, A Short Life of Trouble: Forty Years in the New York Art World (University of California Press), in 2000, when, diagnosed with breast cancer and then lymphoma, she believed she had little time left. The miracle is that the book is a remarkable piece of writing. It reads, in fact, like a sustained comic monologue, in which she narrates what it was to be not just an art-world provocatrice but a woman in search of personal happiness in a world of graceless men who “could take apart a car engine with delicacy and precision but couldn’t find their way around our anatomy.” It is almost as though Miss Mannerist was her coauthor. A Short Life of Trouble is, moreover, a wise book, as much on subjects of the heart as on those that shook the art world during her tenure. She did not, alas, live to write the book she was certain would be a best seller, Death for Dummies, but she has composed a literary monument to her heroic life in art, as moving as it is entertaining.

Arthur C. Danto is a contributing editor of Artforum.

ROSALIND KRAUSS

I would name Benjamin’s -abilities (note the hyphen), published by Harvard University Press, not only the best read of 2008 but, with a shelf full of works on Walter Benjamin, the best book on him I’ve ever read. A primary reason for this is the fact that Samuel Weber—whom I have esteemed since encountering his stunning Heideggerian analysis of television, Massmediauras—reads Benjamin in German. This made him sensitive to the repetition of the suffix -barkeit (German for “ability,” as in the English capability, etc.), which is used so liberally in Benjamin’s writing. The most familiar example instancing this is the “Work of Art” essay: The final word of its title, usually given in English as “Mechanical Reproduction,” is in fact Reproduzier-barkeit, forcing on us instead “Technical Reproducibility.” Mastery of German carries Weber’s analysis to Benjamin’s greatest philosophic influence, the work of Immanuel Kant. In the Third Critique, the immediacy that requires judgments of taste or beauty to be totally unmediated by concepts is given as Unmittelbarkeit. Benjamin’s addition of the suffix -barkeit to so many verbs in order to form a noun is the subject of Weber’s attention in his introduction. There, he compares these invented compounds to what he calls “one of only a few terminological constants” in Derrida’s entire production, iterability—which Weber stresses is not just repetition but the condition of possibility of iteration. Benjamin’s resort to this kind of compound noun is, Weber argues, a distinctive form of conceptualizing, one that allows the phenomenon “to part company with itself.” Such a self-parting, or denial of self-presence, Weber calls deconstructive.

Deconstruction enters into Weber’s analysis of the idea of “origin,” as in the title of Benjamin’s dissertation, The Origin of the German Mourning Play. Here we discover relations to concepts in “The Philosophy of History,” such as “dialectical image” and “tiger’s leap.” By refusing the idea of “origin” as a material entity, Benjamin folds it into a flow of time: Origin “is not the . . . becoming . . . of something that has already emerged. . . . Rather,” Weber says, “it is the offspring . . . of coming-to-be and going-away.” In this, we encounter the Derridian analysis of Mallarmé’s presentation of mimesis as “the false appearance of a present,” or a “double that doubles no simple,” the near impossibility of a copy that precedes its model. Significantly, Weber’s discussion of this radical conception of origin is titled “Genealogy of Modernity.”

Rosalind Krauss is university professor of twentieth-century art and theory at Columbia University in New York.

WAYNE KOESTENBAUM

Muteness appealed to the French poet Francis Ponge, who didn’t consider himself a poet. He died in 1988, but his books, which hypersensitively document the linguistic complexities of observing natural phenomena (flowers, birds, plants, insects), remain contemporary events. This year, the inestimable Archipelago Books has issued Lee Fahnestock’s sensitive translation of Ponge’s Rage de l’expression (1952), under the title Mute Objects of Expression. His stuttering text is a bouquet of seven experimental prose notebooks (sometimes constructed in verse lines), which treat, with a Wittgensteinian uncloudedness, the problem of trying to describe a bird, a carnation, a mimosa, a riverbank, a pine forest, a Provençal sky, a wasp. Ponge attacks this dilemma—how to say what he sees—by making lists, by apologizing, by hesitating, by erasing, by looking up words in the dictionary and dumbly copying down their definitions, and by doggedly beginning afresh to ponder the indescribable object. “None of this should be taken seriously,” he cautions the reader; Ponge, half a comic, blithely admits that his work—a heap of scraps—is a “poetic abscess.” He doesn’t mind making mistakes; semantic errors offer tactile pleasure. About carnations, he writes, “Accept the challenge things offer to language. These carnations, for instance, defy language. I won’t rest till I have drawn together a few words that will compel anyone reading or hearing them to say: this has to do with something like a carnation. Is that poetry? I have no idea, and it scarcely matters. For me it is a need, a commitment, a rage, a matter of self-respect, and that’s all there is to it.” Ponge’s investigations paved the way for later destabilizers, including Derrida, who liked to push a phrase around until it bled. Indeed, Ponge’s willingness to say “perhaps what makes my work so difficult is that the name of the mimosa is already perfect” has inspired generations of artists and writers—strugglers, who obstinately continue to hazard the act of making, even if their constructions collapse. Or, as Ponge put it, “All of this is too crude.” His crudeness is anyone else’s lace.

Wayne Koestenbaum is a poet and critic and the author, most recently, of Hotel Theory (Soft Skull Press, 2007).

PAMELA M. LEE

Two thousand and eight was a good year for art history titles, particularly in the field of postwar art. Special mention must go to Carrie Lambert-Beatty, whose brilliant Being Watched: Yvonne Rainer and the 1960s (MIT Press) now stands as the authoritative text on this crucially important artist and makes an unequivocal case for the centrality of performance-based strategies in the visual arts of that decade. Where topicality is concerned, however, an art historian might be forgiven for having more than the stuff of her day job on the brain this year. As the quadrennial wheel takes another spin, questions of aesthetics and politics—no small matter for Rainer and her generation, to be sure—are by and large trumped by electoral politics, in all their brutish and venal excess.

And so my noteworthy book pick of 2008 is Rick Perlstein’s withering Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (Scribner), its titular coinage borrowed from a speech by Adlai Stevenson during his second failed run for president in 1956. If George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant! reads like a linguist’s postmortem to 2004’s electoral debacle, Nixonland serves as a historical primer on today’s dirty politics. It is required reading for the David Axelrods of the world, or anyone else at pains to comprehend the radically ugly turn of our latest electoral cycle: the “Real America” versus “Fake America,” Joe the Plumber versus the chardonnay-swilling elites of New York and San Francisco. Perlstein locates the roots of Nixon’s brass-knuckle tactics neither in Sacramento’s congressional backrooms nor in the McCarthy-esque star chambers of the Beltway, but in the institutional culture of undergraduate politics at a small Quaker school in Southern California. It was Nixon’s outsider status at Whittier College, otherwise dominated by a “circle of swells” known as the Franklins, that led the man who would be president to found an unlikely fraternity: a band of misfit strivers called the Orthogonians. Nixon and the Orthogonians rose to campus prominence based on their collective sense of victimization and the efficiency with which they played the myth of their outsiderness against a phantom clique of “elites.” In brisk and incisive prose, Perlstein narrates how Nixon relentlessly exploited this Orthogonian morality in the service of increasingly divisive political brinksmanship.

We are all too familiar with the fallout of this strategy. Though the academic in me might quibble with the psychobiographical turn of some of Perlstein’s arguments, his thesis resonates too powerfully with the current state of political mudslinging for me to dissect it on methodological grounds. Indeed, way back in 1887 Nietzsche gave us a philosophical handle to explain such phenomena—the notion, elaborated in On the Genealogy of Morals, of ressentiment. The cautionary tale that is Nixonland is nothing less than the politics of ressentiment writ large across the American stage.

Pamela M. Lee is a professor of art history at Stanford University.

TOM MCCARTHY

Solution 9: The Great Pyramid, published by the rarely unexciting Sternberg Press, defies categorization. What it “is,” I suppose, is a compilation of documents generated by a proposal first floated in 2006 by the book’s editors, Ingo Niermann and Jens Thiel, to erect a giant pyramid, of which each stone would constitute a tomb—the whole edifice thus forming (unlike the single-occupant pyramids of pharaonic times) a collective, “democratic” burial site. This pyramid would expand as it acquired more and more occupant-slabs; in principle, it could grow infinitely.

So far, so late-night drunk and stoned. What Niermann and Thiel did next, though, took the whole thing to another level: They applied for funding from the German Federal Cultural Foundation’s Future of Labor Fund, and were granted roughly $115,000—no mean sum. They then got architects and urban planners—including Rem Koolhaas, Atelier Bow-Wow, and MADA s.p.a.m.—on board, selected the village of Streetz in the former GDR as their ideal site, started taking reservations for slab space, and even commissioned a piece of music, from composer David Woodard, to commemorate the symbolic laying of the first stone. The world’s press caught on: “The mother of all pyramids,” La Stampa called it (as we read in a sampling of media responses included in the book); “If the team behind it is successful, its members will be rich beyond the wildest dreams of even the most ambitious pharaoh,” reasoned the UK’s Sunday Telegraph; Trendhunter.com urged its readers, “Get yours today.”

Imagine if Borges, rather than writing “The Babylon Lottery,” had persuaded Argentina’s National Gaming Commission to set up an über-lottery and then simply documented the results, and you get an idea of what’s going on with Solution 9. It’s a fiction that plays out in real space and time—in other words, that becomes real—while remaining a fiction. My favorite passage is the description of the festival organized by the editors at the proposed pyramid site. The mayor, who claims to “love cultural monuments,” throws his weight behind the project; other citizens wave banners declaring, WE DON’T WANT 5,000,000 DEAD PEOPLE IN STREETZ. A man from a rival village sidles over to Niermann and suggests that, if the people of Streetz don’t want it, “why not just build it the next village over, in Mühlstedt?”

Tom McCarthy is a writer and artist living in London. His novel Remainder, which won the 2007 Believer book award, is currently being adapted for cinema.

SHANNON EBNER

If a writer’s style can be characterized as photographic, then this is how I would refer to Moyra Davey’s stylistic approach in her essay “Notes on Photography & Accident.” Published on the occasion of the artist’s first museum exhibition (at Harvard’s Fogg, curated by Helen Molesworth), Long Life Cool White is a small, elegantly designed paperback that neither feels nor reads like a typical catalogue.

Davey’s writing is scholarly while never losing sight of a more personal and notational expository drift. And it is precisely this drift that grants her prose its photographic quality. Taking up the question of whether the notion of accident may hope to retain its relevance, Davey looks to Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, Susan Sontag, and Janet Malcolm, each of whom has mined this history of analog slippages in his or her texts. Through their writing, Davey locates precedence for a renewed interest in the camera’s mechanical mishaps. One gets the sense that Davey, in casting herself into the interstitial spaces of thought, is not so much thinking about things as thinking between them. As an example, among Davey’s notes are ideas about photography’s ascending market value and correlative expansion of scale; Benjamin’s idea of the optical unconscious in relation to psychoanalysis; Davey’s own declining health; and, finally, thoughts on the drive to take photographs in the “real,” as opposed to the imagined (read: staged) world at all. Definitive conclusions are not necessarily what Davey values.

What readers may find of value, however, are Davey’s photographs, in particular her “Copperheads” series, 1990–92. Here, the distressed surfaces of pennies, the lowliest form of currency, are surveyed by the camera’s uncompromising lens, investing the cent with the exploits of visual information not commonly bestowed upon it.

Perhaps what struck me most about this book was Davey’s low-grade anxiety about analog photographic technologies on the cusp of obsolescence. In her summary of the quotes (from Barthes, Sontag, et al.) that began her journey into the topic of “Photography & Accident,” Davey formulates the proposition that “accident is the lifeblood of photography.” If we are to accept this claim, one may ask, what will it mean for the medium when photography loses touch with the analog—which requires, at the very least, an actual subject, even if inanimate—and so surrenders some control to the fate of a mechanical camera? Will photography be leached of life, or will the notion of accident merely undergo a radical redefinition? In medias res, this pun is intended.

Shannon Ebner is an artist based in Los Angeles.

JAMES MEYER

The struggle for civil rights is the most iconic of 1960s stories, and the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, followed the next year by Rosa Parks’s refusal to cede her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, are often cited as the era’s inaugural events. Road to Freedom: Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement 1956–1968 (High Museum of Art), the catalogue for an extraordinary exhibition organized by Julian Cox, the curator of photography at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, is an important contribution to the visual record of the movement. Building on the research of Steven Kasher and other scholars, Cox located many of the still-living photographers, purchased their works, and wrote down their recollections. The trove of images he assembled encompasses some 250 priceless prints. Parks’s arrest; the marches in Birmingham and Selma, Alabama, and Washington, DC; the murders of the four girls in Birmingham and of the three civil rights workers in rural Mississippi; the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in a Memphis motel: These and other famous events feature here, often in images taken by freelance journalists. The story—of “ordinary people who acted on conscience and took terrible risks,” in the words of civil rights leader James Lawson—has been told often. It amazes still.

Cox also recalls other, less well-known episodes, such as the May 1961 attack on a bus of Freedom Riders near Anniston, Alabama, a drab town—I have driven through it—at the foot of the Talladega Mountains. As Cox recounts, a bus transporting fourteen Freedom Riders on the highway between Atlanta and Birmingham was greeted by a mob of Klansmen. It was pursued to the highway and then firebombed. The choking passengers were beaten as they escaped from the burning vehicle; the local hospital refused them treatment. This gruesome affair was recorded in a sequence of gelatin-silver prints shot by the intrepid photojournalist Joseph Postiglione. These and other images of violence discussed by Cox provide a healthy antidote to ’60s nostalgia, the tendency to view the era through the rose-tinted glasses of the miniseries and movie musical. As Lawson suggests, the heroic acts of the time often came at considerable personal cost.

Road to Freedom also reminds us that photographs were essential to the movement’s success. Indeed, their transmission in the media led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In other words, these pictures not only recorded the events they depict; they were instrumental in inventing this history that they seem merely to record. Often consciously so: The famous photograph of Rosa Parks on the bus, we learn, is not in fact a documentation of her act of disobedience. The image was posed, a reconstruction of an event that had already occurred. (No wonder she sits alone. In the original incident, the bus driver, in order to seat an extra white passenger on the crowded bus, asked Parks to relinquish her “black” seat.) The future ’60s—a ’60s that haunts and defines the contemporary, that stands as a marker of where we have been and where we are now—was already embedded in these acts of representation.

James Meyer is a contributing editor of Artforum.

MAGGIE NELSON

By the time you read this, election season will have passed, and with it, the snowballing of vapid catchphrases: CHANGE WE CAN TRUST! (McCain T-shirt); CHANGE IS AWESEOME! (Obama tote bag). What won’t have been addressed is how else, beyond the bizarrely constricted choices set forth by the two-party system and global capitalism at large, the human animal might organize itself and live.

Anthropologist David Graeber’s Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire (AK Press) addresses this question, via examinations of “dilemmas of authority” in rural Madagascar, the etymology of concepts such as “consumption,” and the global justice movement. “The Twilight of Vanguardism” is one of the most cogent assessments of the “orthopedic aesthetic” (as Grant Kester has put it, in reference to art that aims to correct its viewers’ perceptual defects) I’ve yet read; “On the Phenomenology of Giant Puppets” is a hilarious, disturbing account of how breaking a Starbucks window has become, in the eyes of the authorities, a “threat to the nation” that warrants military-style repression. An anarchist, Graeber believes the ends never justify the means, and he extends this ethos to his writing. His style is bracingly clear, even Wittgensteinian in its insistence on “expos[ing] dilemmas” rather than “dictat[ing] solutions.” “Revolutionary action is not . . . a grim dedication,” Graeber writes, but rather “the defiant insistence on acting as if one is already free.” A contested notion, perhaps, but one that left me cheering.

Another contender for my pick was Slavoj Žižek’'s Violence, as Žižek’'s crackpot gravitas makes an intriguing companion to Graeber’s utopian earnestness. Žižek sees the primary threat today not as passivity but as “pseudo-activity”—i.e., the “urge to . . .‘participate’” that “mask[s] the nothingness of what goes on.” Žižek concludes that the most revolutionary act may be to abstain, in order to force a confrontation with “the vacuity of today’s democracies.” In the end, however, Graeber’s conclusion strikes me as the more enduring. While most of today’s “revolutionaries” are no longer organizing toward “a violent, apocalyptic confrontation with the state,” neither are they pursuing “a strategy of ‘engaged withdrawal.’” Instead, Graeber says, most are searching for a place in between—“a new synthesis,” he admits, is “not yet entirely worked out.” I’ll say. What Possibilities presses upon us is the urgency of “working it out,” while also giving us the felt sense that taking the time to think and imagine need not be an abstention.

Maggie Nelson is on the faculty of the School of Critical Studies, Calarts, and is the author, most recently, of Women, The New York School, and Other True Abstractions (University of Iowa Press, 2007).

MATT WEILAND

David Shields’s The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead (Knopf) may be a memoir, but it is no sappy tale of recovery or happy song of uplift. There’s nothing wrong with Shields besides the humdrum disease of knowing that living is dying; he’s also got a knack for describing on the page how it feels to know so.

Aiming to capture what he calls the “brute facts of existence [and] the fragility and ephemerality of life in its naked corporeality” (a mouthful, that—the rest of the book is much easier to chew), Shields weaves together three disparate strands to make the book: a funny and moving account of his impossibly vital and vibrant ninety-seven-year-old father, Milton Shildcrout; a fractured memoir of Shields’s own life and aging body; and, interspersed throughout, facts, figures, and quotations about the human body generally and its strange, brief passage from dust to dust again. These bits of raw information are presented in flat tones, but they get your attention: By the age of five your heart has quadrupled its birth size; at ten most of your taste buds have disappeared; at twenty-five your brain peaks in size; at thirty your bones are as strong as they’ll ever be; after forty the strength of your grip starts to weaken; and so on.

Like Frank O’Hara or Geoff Dyer, Shields is an itchy, honest, and confessional writer, and The Thing About Life is by turns exuberant, meditative, bewildered, robust. If we sometimes learn too much about Shields himself—about his adolescent pimples, teenage love affairs, and adult hoop dreams—the book is nevertheless self-obsessed in the best sense, too: It is obsessed with the wonder of being here, moment to moment, birth to last breath. Reading it, one feels oneself dying and so is reminded of just how alive we are.

Matt Weiland is the coeditor, with Sean Wilsey, of State By State: A Panoramic Portrait of America (Ecco, 2005).

JUDITH WILLIAMSON

During the past year, my work has focused on climatechange imagery and its effects on our ability—or inability—to picture a future. When British environmentalist George Monbiot told the Guardian in January that Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (Knopf) “could be the most important environmental book ever,” I went straight out and bought a copy.

Nothing could have prepared me for the experience of reading the novel. It produces the sensations of emptiness and fullness simultaneously. Set in a world burned out by an unnamed disaster, the story follows a man traveling with his young son through the charred remains. Together they face the twin dangers of starving and being eaten by cannibals, and the narrative mostly consists of precise, matter-of-fact descriptions of survival as the two of them build shelters and scavenge for cans of food. The horror of an earth almost devoid of organic life is conveyed in language at once poetic and sparse: Despite its intensity, the style has a razed quality, matching the emptiness of the landscape it depicts.

This pares the reading experience down to a minimum. There are few of the pleasing images we associate with descriptive writing—there is almost nothing left, physically, to describe. But the book’s richness is emotional and spiritual, building in the relationship between father and son, which itself is mainly portrayed through simple, terse dialogue, with no sentimental commentary. The Road is not merely about physical but ethical survival: The child born in the apocalypse, knowing nothing else, has developed compassion simply through the relationship with his father, who in this way has preserved goodness in a hideous world. None of this is stated; it is felt in the almost monosyllabic exchanges, so that an intense feeling of humanity is produced rather than described. That the human spirit is so richly evoked through such stark means exactly parallels the content of the story.

The Road does not speak directly about climate change, but it speaks to our relationship with life on earth at the deepest level. One of its most striking tropes is the discovery of relics from our world today—a deserted gas station, a packet of powdered drink—as the familiar shapes of consumer society show through the ashes. The central characters make their journey through hell on earth pushing a supermarket cart. It is a powerful image.

Judith Williamson is a London-based cultural critic and the author of three books about aspects of popular culture.

DIEDRICH DIEDERICHSEN

Despite the fact that Änderungsschneiderei Los Milagros (Alterations Shop, Los Milagros) (S. Fischer) is a very international book, it would be hard to find a publication more difficult to convey to an English-speaking audience. Its author, María Cecilia Barbetta, learned German in Argentina, where she was born, and started writing in the language after moving to Berlin in 1996. This, her first novel, doesn’t fool around with any of the obvious observations that nonnative speakers usually make about the German language. Still, one continually asks oneself what one has got oneself into: which world, which language, and above all which mode between seriousness and play, euphoria and irony.

Barbetta tells of industrious girls and women in an alterations shop in her hometown, Buenos Aires. Her tone brings to mind that of moralizing romance novels written for young German ladies between 1920 and 1960. There is a lot of old-timey onomatopoeia (“Husch—husch!”:“shoo—shoo!”), and people have drily upbeat nicknames. On another level, however, Barbetta takes an indulgent pleasure in the ugly and offbeat idioms of current colloquial German, with its anglicisms and emphatic exclamations like “Hundert Pro!” (from the German for “hundred percent!”—roughly equivalent to “right on!”). The combination of this present-day vernacular and the timeless nineteenth century with its bridal dresses and girls’ dreams would already be a crazy mixture even if Barbetta hadn’t also added a profusion of specialized discourses that have become dear to her, as well as obscurities from remote corners of the German language: entomology, the nuances of cosmetic and textile colors, the slang of cheeky young men, the worlds of Lewis Carroll and Jefferson Airplane. On top of all this, the book is filled with images: Transit tickets, photos of Hans Bellmer objects, and pages from Wonder Woman comics and other books ornament the ends of the chapters. The text itself is interspersed with small vignettes that defy interpretation. Likewise, the typography sometimes leads an eventful life of its own, as if Mallarmé and Mark Z. Danielewski had joined forces. But all this doesn’t end in chaos: The women’s nerdiness about the textile trade and the obsessive-compulsive use of onomatopoeia suffice to give the book structure.

It wouldn’t be completely wrong, in fact, to say that this novel aims at the exact middle of a continuum between Johanna Spyri’s Heidi and Walter Abish’s How German Is It using the tried and tested means of Argentine philology and scholarship of the Borges-Cortázar tradition. The only thing that’s missing is any of the laboriousness and calculation that would be at the heart of such a postmodern monster. Even so, a (foreign) language is here not used as a transparent means of communication but instead distanced and staged as an object: We are on the common ground of poststructural theory and high-modernist prose. But the prefeminist theories and practices of femininity that cheerily breeze through this love story impart something that goes beyond the humorous observation of a remote tongue. They tell of the exactitude of what one makes oneself, or rather what one cobbles together for oneself—the precision that comes from well-protected obstinacy.

Diedrich Diederichsen is a cultural critic based in Berlin.

Translated from German by Alexander Scrimgeour.

JULIA BRYAN-WILSON

It is serendipitous that Zoe Strauss’s first monograph was released the same year as the reissue of Robert Frank’s 1958 classic, The Americans. Strauss’s America (AMMO Books)—the title is an homage to Frank—includes more than 150 images produced since the artist took up photography eight years ago. And, like Frank’s own photographic survey of the United States, it will likely prove indispensable as an account of its historical moment—in this case, the Bush years, documented without recourse to red state/blue state stereotypes.

Strauss began her project as a chronicle of her racially diverse, blue-collar South Philadelphia neighborhood, focusing on portraits, architecture, and urban signage. As this book demonstrates, she has moved beyond that local record, traveling from Chicago to rural Nevada, from Atlanta to the Pacific Northwest, to produce a body of photographs marked by their compositional clarity and unblinking views of the cruelty, absurdity, and unexpected humor of life in the era of Homeland Security. (In one shot, a patriotic post-9/11 “Let’s Roll!” poster hangs next to an ad for treatments for anxiety and depression.) A self-declared “lesbian anarchist,” Strauss also manifests a distinctly feminist and queer sensibility, calling to mind women like Berenice Abbott and Helen Levitt who have been central to the tradition of street photography. Strauss’s camera presses in at times with an urgent intimacy—for instance, when she captures the tender caress of two men, one with an amputated arm, in Ken and Don, 2007. Anecdotal texts interspersed among the photos, shedding light on Strauss’s process and on her encounters outside the frame, heighten this sense of intimacy. The first member of her family to graduate from high school, and untrained as a photographer, Strauss has a keen eye for how class is inscribed on the body—not just in terms of clothing but in dentition, in posture, in affect. She is especially drawn to wounds, both on people and in landscapes: bullet holes, blackened eyes, shot-out windows, a crumpled McDonald’s arch (a casualty of Katrina) in Biloxi, Mississippi.

For all the violence and brutality recorded here, this is not an overwhelmingly depressing book. Rather, it is tough, honest: Strauss registers moments of ebullience and sensitivity that transcend the bleakness of circumstance. In many of her photos, people proudly display their scars—and it is this fierce resilience that is her primary subject. Devastating and empathetic, Strauss’s America brings to mind James Baldwin’s declaration that “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.”

Julia Bryan-Wilson is an assistant professor of contemporary art in the department of art history and director of the doctoral program in visual studies at the University of California, Irvine.