Wednesday, June 15, 2011

King Solomon's Mines - H. Rider Haggard

An adventure story of the highest order, H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mine takes the reader to the interior of mythical darkest Africa. Looking for the wayward brother of Sir Henry, Capt. Good and Allan Quartermain venture beyond mountains, across deserts and into tribal warfare. Along the way they encounter frozen corpses, witches, and ancient treasure maps - the tale encompasses every lost world, grand adventure trope the reader could hope for.

Sparely written, the book moves through a host of experiences but keeps the reader engaged alone the way and gives the impression that you are there every step of the way. Though this is not high literature in any regard, it is also more than just a little racist, the craft of the tale is fairly unimpeachable. Writing clearly, with complexity and excitement is not a series of skills to be overlooked. Haggard has accomplished these things and I will look forward to read another of his adventure stories when the mood strikes me.

Friday, June 10, 2011

We Have Never Been Modern - Bruno Latour

A slim volume and perhaps Latour's most prescient work, We Have Never Been Modern examines what Latour terms the "modernist settlement" and the relationships of nature and culture and our own western culture to that of the "others" who exist in contrast to it. Latour's argument rests on the position that modernism as generally defined remains largely misinterpreted and that a thorough examination breaks down the supposed differences between our present and past, and the West with other "less advanced" cultures. In essence modernism rests on the twin movements of purification - that nature and culture become more separable from each other as we move towards a more perfect modernity - and of translation - that we simultaneously create hybrids of nature and culture that extend our networks of influence. This double movement is crucial for, as Latour sees it, it allows moderns to at once claim unique access to knowledge of the world "as it really is" while also mobilizing this knowledge in ways that transcend normal politics and social measure.

As the title suggests, Latour argues that there is no distinction of kind between western culture and others, rather one of scope, scale and pretension. Latour coherently crafts an argument for why such is the case - his theoretical work on networks and events, if nothing else, can provide interesting brain fodder for numerous disciplines - and how our actual mediation as a part of the world opens avenues for new analysis and potentialities for new politics. By suggesting a new nature-culture "Constitution" Latour attempts to provide an at once commonsensical - once you understand his logic - and novel understanding for the ways that phenomena, whether they be humans or non-humans, technologies, sciences, concepts or locations, are connected and circulate among one another. Though seemingly complex and dense at first, We Have Never Been Modern provides a wonderful introduction to a powerful mind and one of the major movements of the modern philosophies of science and technology.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time - Michel Serres with Bruno Latour

Two of France's premier modern-day philosophers sit down so that we might better be able to understand one of them. Michel Serres is known for writing in a straight-forward and yet seemingly obtuse manner that leaves many (one should think including Bruno Latour) scratching their heads. This series of conversations is meant to trace Serres' intellectual and personal development in relation to his craft. Central to the books points are Serres' call for a re-understanding of the role of the Humanities as a complementary understanding to the sometimes blinding light of the sciences (he would say both natural and social). To get to the need for this reintegration the reader, serving somewhat as a fly on the wall, is brought along through Serres' biography, and how this informs his understanding of both our contemporary situation and how it relates to classical and modern scholarship.

Throughout, Latour performs admirably in trying to pin down the often difficult conceptualizations and intellectual jumps Serres is performing. Simultaneously Serres is allowed to speak for himself and really enunciate that which drives him and the role in to which he has cast himself. This self-styled, modern day Hermes (a title for two of his works) strikes us as most interested in enunciating relationships between seemingly disparate realms of knowledge and inquiry, in the hopes that we might continue to build the human adventure positively. This work seems most valuable in providing a baseline of understanding, or perhaps a spirit with which to better read Serres' work - which, despite his urging and pronouncements, is often difficult to pin down. Much as Serres often seems to construct a framework within which difference fluctuates, this work helps to bracket aspects of his thoughts so that the reader may come along with him as he traces networks and helps to illuminate the importance of pre-positions. Rather than trying to pin him down to place, we are better able to understand the roadmap he is building.