This year of hell—the first year in what promises to be a decade of hell—continues apace. I am doing what I can to stay grounded; hikes, bike rides, playing with my kids, etc. The hobby I most enjoy is reading, and I’m going to try my darndest to write about books more.
The form I chose for this email newsletter initially was a fun experiment, an attempt to connect books that I enjoy and put them in conversation. I may yet revisit that form. But I’m not sure I read at a volume to merit that level of recommendation system, so I’m going to try a new form. A form that lets me get a little closer to a single book, and maybe invites you to check it out. Honestly, I’m writing this for me, but if you read and enjoy, I’m genuinely glad to hear it.
Here’s my book newsletter, take 2.
As we approach this election in America, perhaps you find yourself like me: completely unsatisfied with the candidates running for president. I’ll be voting against the guy currently in office by voting for his opponent, but I can’t say I’m enthused to have either of them in office. But the opponent will be immeasurably less harmful to so many people than the current guy, so you know, yay for that.
Thinking about this, about the lack of good candidates and the frustration of making this choice called to mind a book I read a few years ago; Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times by Alexis Shotwell. The book was recommended to me by my friend Britt who is a delightful and brilliant friend in Philly. My thinking about numerous issues were challenged greatly by it (which is one of the highest compliments I can give a book), so in this issue I’m going to flip through it, pull out things I underlined, and try to summarize it for you. But first, some personal metadata.
Books I’m reading:
Temp: The Real Story of What Happened to Your Salary, Benefits, and Job Security, by Louis Hyman (recommended on the tweets by Anne Helen Peterson, and so very interesting)
Towards Collective Liberation, by Chris Crass (anarchist analysis of feminist, anti-racist movement building)
Born in Blood & Fire, by John Charles Chasteen (non-academic history of Latin America, I honestly wonder how white the lens is on this book, seems strong)
On Beauty, by Zadie Smith (second attempt at reading; moving so slow)
Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir (2nd read, goddamn i love this book)
Books I’m starting soon:
The point of reckoning with the social organization of forgetting is, if it is anything, to craft a future different from the horrific past we have collectively inherited and differentially live in the present.
by Alexis Shotwell, published by University of Minnesota Press, 2016
(I read this book in 2018. Below is a summary of the book created by skimming back through my underlining and marginalia.)
In the introduction of Against Purity, Shotwell explores (via a marketing slogan on a hand soap) that purity “is the idea that we can access or recover a time and state before or without pollution, without impurity, before the fall from innocence, when the world at large is truly beautiful.”
On the next page, she offers the insight that the book operates from: “All there is, while things perpetually fall apart, is the possibility of acting from where we are.” Expounding, she presents the argument that she explores throughout the book and which I found enthralling:
Being against purity means that there is no primordial state we might wish to get back to, no Eden we have desecrated, no pretoxic body we might uncover through enough chia seeds and kombucha. There is not a preracial state we could access, erasing histories of slavery, forced labor on railroads, colonialism, genocide, and their concomitant responsibilities and requirements. There is no food we can eat, clothing we can buy, or energy we can use without deepening our ties to complex webs of suffering. So, what happens if we start from there?
At this point (we’re still in the introduction) I was intrigued, but when I came across the sentence, I knew I was going to love this book.
If we want a world with less suffering and more flourishing, it would be useful to perceive complexity and complicity as the constitutive situation of our lives, rather than as things we should avoid.
I’d love to give a fuller summary of the book, but honestly every chapter is packed with insightful questions and synthesis of disparate theories. Below are some highlights from my marginalia; the quotes and questions that stand out to me even in a skimming. If you’ve read this book and you want to discuss it, email me! I love book discussions. If you have not read this book, enjoy the quotes below, if they catch your eye as something you are curious about, I guarantee reading this book will expand the questions you have available about the world we live in.
The point of reckoning with the social organization of forgetting is, if it is anything, to craft a future different from the horrific past we have collectively inherited and differentially live in the present. Such crafting would change the material conditions of our lives, though in ways that we cannot completely predict or determine. (pp 41)
I am aiming for a kind of settler politics of memory that does not try to stand outside the past in all its horror, that does not individualize the possible response to how we are implicated in that past and that opens possibilities for collective action.
If we fail to remember more than the official story—if we accede to the account where the dominant culture simply“came around,” in Schulman’s words—we lose more than historical accuracy. We lose the understanding that our own reality is the product of passionate struggle. We fail to honor the people who loved the possibilities of changed futures enough to work toward them even while they were themselves dying.
Being against purity, as I think about the effects of mining and clear-cutting in Sudbury, involves recognizing that even if we live in a city where the air does not make us sick, we are still implicated in the air, land, and water of contaminated places.
We should, then, understand calls for personal responsibility for health as racist as well as classist, and deeply imbricated with the purity logics that delineate whiteness as a social location.
We should understand eating as illuminating our bodies as mere way stations in complex, entwined systems. The eating and excreting body is always entangled, enmeshed, a mess.
If we hold ethics to the level of the individual, we restrict ethical choice to those who are most privileged by and within the system. We can’t have a theory that assumes that the people who are most “free” in relation to the system are the most ethical. In effect, right now, to hold that it is more ethical to eat local, grass-fed, wild-caught (etc.) is to hold that people who can afford to do these things are more ethical than those who eat battery-caged hens and canned GMO corn. (…) No one wants only the rich to have the capacity to have ethics, since they frequently manifest little or no such behavior.
How, given the fact that we are constituted in relation to a thoroughly oppressive world from which we cannot stand outside as we set our course, can we ever craft worlds radically different from the world we experience now?
It is inconsistent to argue that freedom is taken from us if we are unable to oppress others; our freedom consists in willing freedom for others, not only ourselves. Notice that flourishing will continue to be an undecided an in-process norm.
Because gender is already relational, we don’t just need the freedom to change our own gendered selves; we need the freedom to change the gendered world.
Thinking in terms of interdependence helps us work from the understanding that our bodies and selves are complex coproductions of our self, other people, the social relations that undergird our world, and the material realities in which we live. (…) Interdependence can be understood as constitutive of our nature as well as arising as part of the causes and conditions of our lives.
There is never a determinate future, but instead only a present that moves in relation to what we want to move toward. There is not a single pure or perfect future toward which we stretch.
The above selections are just a few sentences from each chapter in a book that is rich with synthesis and thinking with many different people. Alexis Shotwell’s book contains a richness of connectivity and suggestiveness that helps us interrogate the world and imagine the future better. She concludes:
We cannot predict what might emerge from individual and collective practices of staying with the trouble, except that it holds the possibility of another world, still imperfect and impure, and another one after that. The possibility of other worlds, hospitable to hosting many worlds, might be beyond our capacity to imagine. Still, such a possibility can only arise because of our imperfect attempts to make it so.
I personally am always trying to manifest these possibilities. I hope you are too. Thanks for reading, and I hope that this year, in all its horrors, has not succeeded in killing your imagination or desire for something better.