African Modernism

by William Harris

Still, modernism’s ideological vagueness was lent structure by the rise of the welfare state, with big public projects taking up much of its focus. And while the welfare state rose, colonialism fell, leading anxious colonial powers at times to bestow public institutions on colonised populations as gifts of appeasement. Protests shook Ghana after British officials jailed a young Kwame Nkrumah and colonial authorities responded by building more schools; a decade later trade boycotts led to a new community center in Accra. On the eve of independence African states prepared to inherit universities, libraries, housing blocks, garden cities – the patchy and underfunded skeletons of state infrastructure, much of it designed by modernists. [read full essay]

Against Nature

Barry Reay, Nina Attwood & Claire Gooder (eds.), Sex Addiction: A Critical History

reviewed by Francis O'Gorman

How far are we in pathologising human personality? It's not unfamiliar to hear the scientific existence of, say, autism or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder disputed. These are not, the argument runs, clinically diagnosed states but simply part of the continuum of that multiply diverse unknown quantity: human nature. To turn them into 'disorders' is to use a supposedly medical diagnosis as a tool to impose a rigid sense of what is 'normal' or properly ‘ordered.' I remember as a child hearing... [read more]

Fascinate But Don’t Bewilder: How to Write Your Thesis

Umberto Eco, trans. Caterina Mongiat Farina & Geoff Farina, How to Write a Thesis

reviewed by Andre van Loon

If you Google search ‘how to write a thesis,’ an array of information from universities and academic sites appears. In the United Kingdom, for example, Oxford University’s Learning Institute offers guidance through its ‘Stages of the Doctorate’ site, which has a 1,500-word guide tailored specifically to writing a thesis. It advises researchers that they are not alone if they are experiencing anxiety, writer’s block, or procrastination. The website tries to demystify the writing... [read more]

Stuck on Loop

Iain Sinclair, London Overground: A Day's Walk Around the Ginger Line

reviewed by David Anderson

Iain Sinclair's London Overground, in crisp orange hardback, is subtitled ‘A Day's Walk Around the Ginger Line’. That's 34 miles. In one day. Incredulous readers are many. And those who took the time to peruse an excerpt published in the Guardian weren't slow to ask questions. Yet suspicions about the book's logistical likelihood were among the mildest criticisms levelled at the piece. ‘Absurd twaddle’ said one reader, in a symptomatic comment. Sinclair, said another, ‘needs a... [read more]

The Deaths of Others

Timothy Secret, The Politics and Pedagogy of Mourning: On Responsibility in Eulogy

reviewed by Stuart Walton

The valiant attempt by Epicurus to dismiss death as a philosophical concept barely survived the third century BC. Its ringing simplicity – there is no point in maundering on about death if you are still alive, and no possibility of maundering about it after you have departed – sought only to remove the fear of it, but death has always been about much more than fear. The ways in which people die, the influence they continue to exert over their successors, the correct attitude to... [read more]

Signalling Posterity: The Fiction Writer's Journalism

Edouard Levé, trans. Jan Steyn & Caite Dolan-Leach, Newspaper

reviewed by Dominic Jaeckle

I would like to make [literature] out of real objects. The lemon to be a lemon that the reader could cut or squeeze or taste - a real lemon like a newspaper in a collage is a real newspaper. [...] But things decay, reason argues. Real things become garbage. The piece of lemon you shellac to the canvas begins to develop a mold, the newspaper tells of incredibly ancient events in forgotten slang, the boy becomes a grandfather. Yes, but the garbage of the real still reaches out into the current... [read more]

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

Tim Jordan, Information Politics: Liberation and Exploitation in the Digital Society

reviewed by Dominic Fox

In 1979, the French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard submitted to the Quebec government a document that would later be published as The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Lyotard’s report closed with a call for the opening of public access to the databases and knowledge banks on which future decision making would depend. If knowing things was increasingly the function of the research and development wings of giant corporations such as IBM, Lyotard’s concern was that capitalist... [read more]

Nature is Dirty

Tom McCarthy, Satin Island

reviewed by Dan Barrow

Culture as garbage, garbage as culture – such is one formulation of the modernist conundrum. Beckett's much-abused comment that '[e]very word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness' – given, lest we forget, not in some carefully preserved high-cultural despatch, but in a 1969 interview for Vogue – rather than implying a quasi-Buddhist contempt for the merely existent acknowledges that words are a substance that requires order, patterning, against the impossible purity of... [read more]

En-chant the Land

Robert Macfarlane, Landmarks

reviewed by Jennifer Upton

‘Before you become a writer,’ says Robert Macfarlane in Landmarks, ‘you must first become a reader.’ Macfarlane is an attentive, empathetic reader of texts and landscapes. These dual literacies inform each other in Landmarks, creating a book that invites its own readers to be enriched by its language and turn their gaze outwards, to the grammar of the natural world. The book is a record of Macfarlane’s ‘pupillage, if the word may be allowed to carry its senses both of “tuition”... [read more]

A Second Skin

Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, Leanne Shapton et al., Women in Clothes: Why We Wear What We Wear

reviewed by Amber Jane Butchart

‘The commodity is not one kind of thing rather than another, but one phase in the life of some things,’ wrote the cultural anthropologist Arjun Appadurai in his book, The Social Life of Things (1988). It is the life of things – specifically clothing – and our relationships with those things that are the driving force behind Women in Clothes. Refreshingly unconcerned with the commodity phase, unlike much fashion reportage, this is a book that documents the power of clothing to share in... [read more]

The Feeling of Things Past

Yoel Hoffmann, trans. Peter Cole, Moods

reviewed by Dustin Illingworth

In Proustian literature, memory is marshalled as a form of aesthetic seduction. The product of that most fundamental of human propensities – to recall, to remember – is imbued with an authenticity that belies its construction as the reader, beguiled, begins to conceive of remembrance itself as a kind of latent narrative model: behold, the novel of the mind. The history of the memory novel – as a site of revelation, of credible experience, of transformative pain – is as rich as anything... [read more]