#124 - 127.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012 11:17
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Taking a break from revisin' to write down what I thought about some books.

Possession, by A.S. Byatt.

To be honest it's long ago enough, and I don't have a copy to hand, that I can't give a very detailed review of this - I really liked it, and I think it's a good book, but I didn't love this. Part of this may be personal (give me the novel about three doctoral candidates writing their dissertations on legal theory, who're sharing a flat and also falling in love with each other, now). Part of it comes down to a wider problem about accessibility in novels about academia; not only insofar as the hyperacademic, relentless intellectualising of the characters can get frustrating, but also to the extent that participating in academia dooms you to unlikeability. THEY'RE JUST SO UNHAPPY AND SELF-AWARE ABOUT IT THO.

Nevertheless, cracking good literary mystery, and you have to give her lots of points for writing all the poetry (which was mostly good enough to convince you they were classics). I did enjoy that Byatt was reflective enough about the pitfalls of academia to skewer everyone who came into to the picture, even her protagonists, for it. And that's sort of all I have to say?

The Archaeology of Knowledge, by Michel Foucault.

This book is about Foucault's basic methodology and it was good, but I didn't find it as electrifying as I did Discipline and Punish - perhaps no surprise there, I'm a criminologist. Foucault argues that we're not interrogating the way we understand or organising knowledge thoroughly enough, and even so-called critical theorists (e.g. Marxists, or feminists) simply go through knowledge historically, i.e. trying to understand what led us to believe, up to that point, what we believed. Which is fair enough. I didn't really understand what the constructive alternative he was proposing consisted of though. Ok, so to fully 'understand' a discourse we must have recourse to syntax, semantics, and context - so what? How does that make him different from the structuralists he sets himself apart from? I don't get it. Bear of little brain, etc.

I didn't really agree with the emphasis he placed upon language as I understood it either. Yes, an individual unit of discourse is a sentence as well as the time and place it is said in, for sure. I'm not sure why this means we need to investigate language per se, and the fact that he didn't really acknowledge, say, the work of language philosophers like Wittgenstein in his treatise made me feel he could have saved a lot of time and intellectual effort by doing that... and I'm fairly sceptical of analytic approaches (which can only take you so far) to philosophy anyway!

But also, it's Foucault, and he can write:

If one recognises in science only the linear accumulation of truths or the orthogenesis of reason, and fails to recognise in it a discursive practice that has its own levels, its own thresholds, its own various ruptures, one can describe only a single historical division, which one adopts as a model to be applied at all times and for all forms of knowledge: a division between what is definitively or what is not yet scientific. All the density of the disconnexions, the dispersion of the ruptures, the shifts in their effects, the play of the interdependence are reduced to the monotonous act of an endlessly repeated foundation.


That last sentence!! Very stirring, no? And yet - taken as a whole the passage doesn't say anything new; part of it is my Anglo-centric outlook and the other part is a genuine failing (shall we say, "quirk") on Foucault's part, that he doesn't actually refer to any other writers, but that's basically what Karl Popper said so just do your reading already, Foucault.

I knew a girl like Foucault in school once - very intelligent, constantly apostrophising, refused to take an ounce of inspiration from other people. She was wonderful to listen to, but endlessly frustrating.

The Rule of Law, by Tom Bingham.

Start of review, probably not the best part to admit that I love the shit out of Tom Bingham!!! and also that one of my other heroes, Shami Chakrabati, has mentioned that he's one of her heroes. He is one of my favourite Supreme Court judges ever.

That said, very good book for the general reader - this is not degree-level reading, and it won't give you a comprehensive view of the concept of rule of law, but it's riveting stuff, which is more than one can say for that hypothetical other treatise. Tom Bingham's early academic career as a historian also shows, in that a good part of the book is about historical milestones in the development of rule of law. This also works really well as he's talking about a common law system where to speak of it entire is to speak of history.

That said, it's awkward that this was won the Orwell Prize for best political book, oops. (But probably has a lot more to do with my own hang-ups with the law than anything else.) Also recommended reading: the chapter on Terrorism and the Rule of Law, as well as anything he says ever about the Human Rights Act. (And the international legal order. And hybrid procedures.)

I would leave my favourite quote by Tom Bingham here about how "human rights are not for the like of you and me - they are for the asylum-seeker, the person suspected of terrorism, the disabled and the all-round disadvantaged" but I can't find it. :(

Silent House, by Orhan Pamuk.

This would be one of my favourite novels of 2012 were it not only Orhan Pamuk's second novel and thus a little raw. Its themes speak to me on so many levels: intellectual liberal privilege, the idea of inaction, rage and youth, the idea of legitimacy, the personal and the political. It's great!

"In an old mansion in Cennethisar, a former fishing village near Istanbul, a widow, Fatma, awaits the annual summer visit of her grandchildren. She has lived in the village for decades, ever since her husband, an idealistic young doctor, first arrived to serve the poor fishermen. Now mostly bedridden, she is attended by her faithful servant Recep, a dwarf - and the doctor's illegitimate son. They share memories, and grievances, of the early years, before Cennethisar became a high-class resort.

Her visiting grandchildren are Faruk, a dissipated failed historian; his sensitive leftist sister, Nilgun; and Metin, a high-school student drawn to the fast life of the noveaux riches, who dreams of going to America. But it is Recep's nephew Hasan, a high-school dropout, lately fallen in with right-wing nationalists, who will draw the visiting family into the growing political cataclysm issuing from Turkey's tumultous century-long struggle for modernity."

I haven't read, since Monica Ali's Brick Lane, such a good evocation of the privileged intellectual husband:

We used to go for long walks together in those days: there are so many things to do in life, Fatma, Selahattin would say, come, let me show you a little of the world, how's the kid in your tummy, is it kicking, I know it will be a boy and I'm going to name him Dogan (Birth), so that he'll always remind us of the new world that is dawning, so he lives in security and prosperity and believes that his strength is a match for the world! ... We'll establish a brand-new world here, thinking and living things that are fresh, simple, happy, and free: a world of freedom such as the East has never seen, a paradise of logic on the face of the earth, I swear, Fatma, it will happen, and we'll do it better than the West, we've seen their mistakes, and we won't repeat them, and if we, or even our sons, don't get to see it, our grandchildren certainly will, I swear, a paradise of logic on this earth! ... I will never teach this child the Eastern melancholy, the weeping, pessimism, the defeat of our terrible Oriental fatalism...


(Also boy that is some superb internalised racism in there.)

The other thing: I was a little sad about the way Pamuk positions women in here, because he can write women, they're not necessarily amazing, but I thought Fatma here was GREAT. But also - two women we never hear from, but are just apostrophised through the eyes of boys in dumb unrequited love with them, seriously? (I'm not a robot - I thought Nilgun's death was really tragic, and I loved her, but I could have done it so much better if I'd actually heard from her.) So. I'm not sure where I was trying to go with this. But I'll leave it here anyway.

PS. I'm really tempted to review all my law books but I probably shan't, hahaha! That being said: John Eekelaar's Family Law and Personal Life is very good, but why doesn't he (and a bunch of other academics) ever acknowledge the great intellectual debt they owe to Martha Nussbaum and Philippa Foot?
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