The Best Books of 2018

Daniel Avatar

It’s time to restore a tradition on this blog: the classic year-end best books list.

2018 has been a fairly significant year for my research and reading. As you will see below, my primary concerns orbit around political economy, psychoanalysis, the history of Marxist thought, the Black Radical Tradition, the theological genealogy of socialist thought, and the intellectual foundations of contemporary liberal thought.

Here are the top 20 books that I read in 2018.

1. Libidinal Economy, Jean-Francois Lyotard

This is my number one text for the year because it has aided me in situating Deleuze and Guattari’s turn to libidinal economy and the wider 20th century turn to Marx and Freud, in a clearer light. This book is an important and overlooked end-point in the line of inquiry into libidinal economy opened by Pierre Klossowski’s Living Currency. I am working on an essay around this incredible text at the moment. I don’t want to say much more than this at the moment.

2. Main Currents of Marxism, Leszek Kołakowski

Kołakowski is the most important liberal reader of the Marxist tradition. His massive tomb was next to me at every summer outing and every pool side day of rest. It took me several months to finish this incredible study of the Marxist tradition. What you have in this book is an invaluable study of every seminal Marxist thinker, both the prehistory of socialist utopians all the way up to Althusser. As you can imagine, he is wrong in many of his findings, in particular because he was caught in the orbit of Stalin, but what matters the most is his orientation and his historical perspective.

He links Marxism into a genealogical line of theological thought coming out of Augustine. His other work on Jansenism is also quite incredible and opened many doors for my research into the origins of socialist thought. Instead of the Protestant emphasis of many 21st century Marxists, who bring St. Paul to bear on the foundations of universalist emancipatory thought, Kołakowski places the Marxist tradition in line with a much wider Neo-Platonist tradition of contingency. In other words he locates the early Marxist focus on the generic in line with Neo-Platonism.

3. Living Currency, Pierre Klossowski

Klossowski is really responsible for bringing out a focus on thinking of economies as libidinal formations. His text is built around a very fascinating claim that the western economic machine is built around a repressed core of Pagan cosmologies and aesthetics. This is a very important text to read in conjunction with Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus because it lays the foundation for thinking of the way in which modes of exchange are libidinally constituted.

The text is a sort of prolegomena to thinking ways to reinvest objects devoid of use value towards enjoyment that would not reinforce repression. Most notably he poses a rich dialogue around this mode of exchange between that of Sade and Fourier.

4. The Liberal Tradition in America, Louis Hartz

The Liberal Tradition in America is probably the most important book ever written about the political tradition in America. Why does every crisis in America only end up re-affirming a liberal consensus? Why has socialism remained so foreign and anathema to American life? With the collapse of liberalisms ground and efficacy in 2016, these questions are so vital to understand. Hartz gives us a grim but essential historical picture of liberalism in America.

Written with a perverse Cold War fatalism, Hartz shows how the American political situation is basically one of. terminal liberalism. He argues, very persuasively, that the American revolution ushered in an unprecedented sort of revolution the world had never seen. The American revolution birthed a Lockian social contract of supposed equality in the context of a society that had no extant feudal structure. The fact that America has always lacked this backdrop of feudalism is the core reason why class antagonism and class consciousness have never taken off in America. Americans have thus never been able to truly think equality along class lines, living int he fantasy that, even when capitalism developed immense inequality, that equality was already self-evident in the very DNA of American society.

Socialism in America thus remains a fundamental paradox because the American view, from the origin point in its revolution, incorporated the very basis of socialism metaphysically, founded as it was on a reversal of the Russian revolution of combined development. Where Russia went from feudalism to communism, never knowing liberalism, America went from liberalism to liberalism, and it has remained inevitably and tragically liberal ever since. The impact of this natural liberalism, or metaphysical Lockianism has been devastating not only for American emancipation but for American political thought. America has failed to produce a conservative political tradition just as it has failed to produce a leftist political tradition, each attempt only embroils the other in an inevitable liberal consensus.

American liberals think like Hercules but act like Hamlet–a good description of today’s liberal progressives.

5. Hinterland: America’s New Landscape of Class and Conflict, Philip Neel

Whither the proletariat in the Trump era? The rogue Communist-Anthrpologist-Theorist Philip Neel takes us on an adventure into the social spaces of the blighted hinterlands of America only to reveal an incredible picture of class conflict bubbling on the outer-regions of American cities–this is a picture into unforeseen solidarities, of political struggles that are not broadcast on social media timelines. The book is indeed a breath of fresh air and one that should be read by every liberal that has accepted the representational narrative of American politics.

6. The Structure of World History: From Modes of Production to Modes of Exchange,Kojin Karatani

Karatani’s The Structure of World History is such an incredible follow-up from his Transcritique on Kant and Marx. Karatani is in many ways the most important living Marxist thinker. Similar to Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy, I can’t write too much more about this incredible book other than to say that it has really helped me think the role of religion in revolutionary struggle and the way in which praxis must be re-thought if we take seriously an emphasis on modes of exchange over modes of production.

7. Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism, Melinda Cooper

Melinda Cooper has written a book that really speaks to an unspoken reality of today’s social and political order. Yes, we have hyper-individualism, but very seldom do we think of what is meant to replace the social safety net in the collapse of the welfare state. The brutal truth is that the family is expected to serve as this safety net.

In fact, Cooper nicely shows how neoliberal governance has re-issued an old tradition from the Gilded Age known as the Elizabethan Poor Laws, a form of social control on the poor which enforces familial responsibility for health care and all sectors of financial dependency. In today’s pseudo meritocratic liberalism and compulsory financial debt, the family is the fundamental fall-back one must rely on to provide the false veneer of meritocracy.

I taught this book to undergraduates this year and the class really appreciated it. It is a very delicate and I would say traumatic reality to locate inequality in the family. But it is essential to do so and Cooper has assisted us in laying it all out. Bless her.

8. Joyful Cruelty, Clement Rosset

Rosset is a wonderful muse of late existentialist thought. An incredible reader of Nietzsche. A recluse in a fledgling western academe. A writer of true courage and insight. What I love most about Rosset is the mastery he possess around the aphorism.

He argues that in the most unfavorable of situations joy can be grasped. In fact, Rosset wants to show that joy does not need an external cause. Joy is not defined by the favorable circumstances that give rise to it. Joy reaches beyond mere emotion; it is a moral reaction of approbation produced by the recognition that occurs when one lays aside all mediation between oneself and the real.

9. The Real and its Double, Clement Rosset

I taught this book to my prison course. The reading Rosset offers around Oedipus and Socrates–both figures of oracular truth–is so clear and interesting. This is a book that must be cherished by every philosopher, a clear and cogent argument for the very structure of truth in the western canon.

10. State and Politics: Deleuze and Guattari on Marx, Guillame Sibertin-Blanc

Chapter three on history in Anti-Oedipus is the most difficult section of the text. In this book, Sibertin-Blanc places D and G’s reflections on history in line with the tradition of Marxist historical materialism, showing how we must refrain from reading D and G as outside of post-Leninism, but rather housed within post-Leninist thought.

11. The Idea of Socialism: Towards a Renewal, Axel Honneth

The late Frankfurt School theorist Axel Honneth gets a bad rap from Marxists, perhaps rightly so. But these lectures provide a few very useful formulas for thinking the socialist tradition. The idea that has proven most useful to my research is that democratic will-formation is a communicative act–the liberals realized this, but the socialists did not. Honneth thus argues that socialism must maintain an emphasis on social freedom as a way to achieve the unrealized ideals of egalitarianism, fraternity and liberty from the French revolution.

12. Now, The Invisible Committee

My review of this short manifesto is here. Now is a breathtaking statement, albeit mystical and too Heideggerian (at times).

13. Black and Blur (consent not to be a single being), Fred Moten

Moten is a true jazzman of the mind and bluesman of the soul. We don’t deserve Moten in America but we are so lucky to have him. The essays in this book develop a kaleidoscope of theoretical reflection that draws from poststructuralism, Marxism, literature, contemporary pop culture, music, dance, architecture and so much more. All of this is grounded in a commitment to the Black Radical Tradition. I have gained the most from his essay on Frederick Douglass’ autobiography and trauma, a lesson I brought into my prison course with some success.

14. Critique of Black Reason, Achille Mbembe

What is race? Mbembe argues that race is desire in a primordial sort of sense, an optical effect — “it’s power comes from its capacity to produce failing subjects and schizophrenic objects” writes Mbembe.

Race has mostly to do with substituting what is with something that is not real. Racialized subjects exist behind appearances – they exist in-between. Racialized subjects live in a space that hates what they are, as Fanon would say.

Race is a community of death.

Race is a surplus, a difference in waste. This leads to a sacrificial cut – the racialized community is reified in this way. Race exists by what we do not see. The racialized person can only appear in the world as a problem. In racial discourse appearance is taken as reality.

15. Twenty-First Century Psychoanalysis, Thomas Svolos

Svolos provides a very impressive set of essays that bring the truths of the clinic to bear on American culture and life. I had the pleasure of interviewing him about this book, here.

16. Eclipse of Reason, Max Horkheimer

I have been teaching in American philosophy departments for the last four years. As you might imagine, I encounter a number of pragmatists. Horkheimer’s polemic against American philosophy, especially pragmatism may very well stand the test of time. This is the book that banned the Frankfurt School from the always conservative philosophy departments during the Cold War, forcing Frankfurt School thought into the outer regions of interdisciplinary existence and back to Europe.

Here’s my review.

17. Shipwreck with Spectator: Paradigm for a Metaphor for Existence, Hans Blumenberg

Blumenberg’s fascinating genealogy of the motif of the shipwreck from Lucretius to Heidegger. This book presents a breathtaking account of the sublime. He begins with a consideration of Aristippus’s lost dialogues given by Diogenes Laertius, entitled “To Shipwrecked Men.” Aristippus was shipwrecked on an island where the natives he encountered did not understand his language and he had to create a philosophical language without any bearing on his own anchoring in common sense and concepts.

The shipwreck is the accident that makes the absolute visible and representable. The book is full of very curious reflections on the motif of shipwreck. Marx describes the proletariat with reference to the ship of fools and the motif of shipwreck:

18. The Hidden God: A Study of Tragic Vision in the Pensées of Pascal and the Tragedies of Racine, Lucien Goldmann

Goldmann’s study of Jansenism is a tour de force! Not only is this an intellectual history of reactionary bourgeois and aristocratic Jansenism, Goldmann also demonstrates how Jansenist thought, especially in Pascal, molded a worldview that took the core insights of philosophical rationalism and molded them to capitalist individualism. Here is a quote from Goldmann:

“In the infinite space of rational science God falls silent, because in elaborating this concept man has been obliged to give up any genuinely ethical norm. The central problem which tragic thought and the tragic mind had to face, a problem which only dialectical thought can solve on both the moral and the scientific plane, was that of discovering whether there still was some means and some hope of reintegrating supra-individual values into this rational concept of space, which had now replaced for ever the Aristotelian and Thomist universe. The problem was whether man could still rediscover God; or, to express the same idea in a less ideological but identical form, whether man could rediscover the community and the universe.”

19. The Lost Spirit of Capitalism: Disbelief and Discredit, Bernard Stiegler

This is my favorite installment in the Symbolic Misery series by Stiegler. In this book Stiegler continues the work Boltanski and Chiapello opened in the New Spirit of Capitalism and lays out an argument that late capitalism can really only be adequately resisted by returning to a prior form of capitalism. This is, at face value, a strange argument, but it is deeply psychoanalytically grounded and very persuasive. I wrote an essay for a conference that pulled from this argument and if you would like that text, let me know as I have not yet published it.

20. Kant’s Critical Philosophy, Gilles Deleuze

After reading Logic of Sense and Difference and Repetition I struggled to understand Deleuze’s appropriation of Kant. But these lectures really help identify the core Kantian project in the critiques and they especially point to the importance of the Critique of Judgment on Deleuze’s thought.

Alas, a major project I have in 2019 will be closely reading the Critique of Judgment.

4 responses

  1. atlanticwhispers

    Thanks for the list! I know only the Goldman, in French, from some 30 years ago. I’ll check the other titles in my university library.

  2. posthumousman

    This is great! Thanks!

  3. danwebstere

    A wonderful list that gives me so many texts to find. I deeply appreciate the typo of ‘tomb’ as the characterization of Kołakowski’s text!

  4. jameslslattery

    Great list – many things here to add to my ever-expanding and always too long list of stuff to read someday. I wonder if you also had a chance to check out Mistaken Identity by Asad Haider which was a swift and articulate read concerning race-based identity politics and their effects on class struggle

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