Best Books of 2019

Daniel Avatar

The traditional year-end inventory of my year in reading. Lists may be clichéd, but they really help me take a breath of air and look out on my intellectual projects and track where I am headed. This year I added the category of “best secondary literature and essays.”

If you want any of these essays or books please reach out to me and I would be happy to share them with you if I have them in digital format. 

1. Avicenna and the Aristotelian Left, Ernst Bloch

Ibn Sina’s metaphysics is a topic very near to my heart. In addition to my commitments to the Marxist tradition I traveled to Ibn Sina’s home in Central Asia and am exploring a documentary film that would touch on him and other Muslim philosophers. 

In Bloch’s treatment of Ibn Sina, the philosopher is important in two regards: the first is the way he interprets Aristotle’s notion of matter, for Ibn Sina all beings are a synthesis of eternity with contingency which means that we no longer have a cosmos centered around the prime mover or an external causality. This contingency of all beings means that existence precedes essence logically and ontologically. But Ibn Sina also claims that all existence is an accident. God bestows existence, not an essence on things. The matter of the world is therefore eternal for Ibn Sina – and it is this position which leads Ibn Sina to call form the “fiery truth” of matter.

Ibn Sina thus unlocks the Aristotelian Left. What his treatment of matter and of materialism allows for is a new conception of possibility. Created beings are capable of determining events for themselves and it is this naturalism that will be the core reason he is attacked by other Muslim theologians, namely the Asharites. It is this peculiar treatment of matter Ibn Sina opens up for the history of thought that Bloch tracks up through the Renaissance on through to Marx. 

2. What Happened in the Twentieth Century: Towards a Critique of Extremist Reason, Peter Sloterdijk

A few years ago I took the plunge and decided to read all of Sloterdijk’s major works. Thus far, I have worked through The World Interior of Capital, You Must Change Your Life, Rage and Time and now the latest collection of essays What Happened in the Twentieth Century. I have not gotten to the Spheres trilogy yet.

In this collection, Sloterdijk presents an entirely new historical periodization of the concept of the “Anthropocene” and provokes a fascinating debate with the core matter of the twentieth century’s radicalism, an interesting counterposition to that of Alain Badiou in his text The Century

3. The Unnameable Present, Robert Calasso 

Calasso’s The Unnameable Present is nothing short of gorgeous. His argument is that the present is marked by competing attempts to capture control of the reigns of society to implement different “experiments” in the management of social life. The unnameable is the evilness that lies housed within the social itself and the continuous consciousness that we are deprived of — the continuity of social relations is our deprivation today. 

In the twentieth century, the question of social control was over control of the past and the future whereas today social control is over the management of information and politics becomes about different experiments in the management of this control. 

But information provides only discrete, not continuous experiences. Consciousness is a blend of discrete and continuous but the unnameable present is marked by the evacuation of continuous consciousness. The world has become insubstantial, and “the more insubstantial the world is, the more people there are to complain about it.” 

4. Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre 

2019 was the year of diving very deeply into Sartre’s early work. I read the entirety of Being and Nothingness this summer in preparation for a course on existentialism. What can I say other than in Sartre’s treatment of ontology and existence I find so much resonance that it becomes the rudiments for thinking. 

5. The Rules of the Game, Vol I, Michel Leiris

This experimental memoir is a lot of fun and a brain tickler. I love the way he veers around temporally like Proust and the descriptive stream of consciousness is absolutely next level. 

6. Capital is Dead: Is This Something Worse?, McKenzie Wark

Wark’s provocative text is a call for new thinking on the radical left. It’s an effort in concept jamming, taking a cue from the Situationists and the early Marx, she wants to unblock some conceptual constipation on the left. It’s a refreshing read. I won’t say much more because I think it deserves a more thorough review in the future! 

7. Capitalism, Alone: The Future of the System that Rules the World, Branko Milanovic

Milanovic argues a few interesting points from the standpoint of an economist in a similar school of thought to Piketty, left of center. The striking fact is that when you pull together large economic data on the three systems of capitalism he identifies–classical industrial capitalism (1830s – 1930s) social democratic capitalism (1945 – 1974), to liberal meritocratic capitalism (1974 – present)–it is the last system, liberal meritocratic capitalism that has produced the highest levels of inequality. The reason this is the case is because for the first time in capitalism the ruling class have not only had excessive untaxed increases in their personal capital, they are also for the first time also wage earners and their wage earning is way beyond anything imaginable in comparison to the bottom 90%. So the ultra wealthy and the top 10% have the other 90% in a hold on both levels in terms of capital and in terms of wages.

8. Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism, Quinn Slobodian 

I listened to this as an audio book yet still found it very significant. The key idea I walked away with is that neoliberalism as an ideological movement was centered on avoiding the same nationalistic affective identifications that brought the world into the two World Wars. In other words, the task of neoliberalism was to shrink the world’s territorial boundaries for the rights of capital to flourish. 

9. Lost in Cognition: Psychoanalysis and the Cognitive Sciences, Eric Laurent 

Laurent’s short text on cognitive science is a must-read for the Lacanian left. He argues that “cognitive behavioural” therapy has nothing to do with the cognitive program and everything to do with a belief that people have in their image. The cognition of the cognitive-behavioural therapies consists, as it has done since their invention back in the late 1950s, in identifying with an ideal image. But the subject does not ground his/her identification on the basis of his swelling form, his bodily envelope, the narcissism of the image, but by treating the body as “organ less.” The body is an empty set in which the only consistency that circles it is found in the logic of the signifier, not the Chomskyian notion of innate grammar/language. 

10. The Labour of Enjoyment: Towards a Critique of Libidinal Economy, Samo Tomsic

I was both pleased and also slightly let down by this text. It is not a text which tethers with Lyotard or Deleuze and Guattari on libidinal economy. It is a text which clarifies the precise theory of libidinal economy from Freud and Lacan with Marx. Tomsic argues that both Marx and Freud reintroduced actual political subjectivity back into the picture—against the fetishist personifications of the master, on which Aristotle’s right measure and Smith’s private interest are grounded. 

Unlike right measure or private interest, which are supposed to sustain homeostasis and stabilisation in libidinal and socioeconomic regimes, psychoanalysis introduces its own political category, which could potentially counteract and break the vicious circle of exploitation and enjoyment, and consequently work against the systemic injustice reproduced by the predominant social mode of production. This political category is sublimation, which stands for a specific intervention in the economy of the drive: satisfaction without repression (82).

11. Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, Arthur Koselleck 

Koselleck’s incredible study of the way historical time is modified following the French Revolution and how the idea of revolution and the introduction of the figure of the “revolutionary” has modified our conception of the future. All of this is deeply useful and will serve as a reference point for other work on periodization. 

12. Spartakus: The Symbology of Revolt, Furio Jesi 

This is a study of the symbolic dimension of the German uprising, or the Spartacus rebellion. It is a very interesting look at the concept of historical time and revolution, how the moment of the insurrection came about and how the role of plays, pamphlets, literature and charismatic figures played various roles in the uprising. 

13. The Prophet Armed: Trotsky, Isaac Deutscher

This book is like the On the Road for Marxists. I never got around to reading it in the tender age in which most read it, namely in their younger years. But don’t let that stop you! But be careful to avoid the romanticism of Trotsky as you read it. I have been reading this book for the past three years but have finally reached the end. 

14. The Origins of Greek Thought, Jean-Pierre Vernant 

The spiritual invention of the polis in the birth of Socratic philosophy — this book and core contribution of what it offers is so vital because it conveys what the novelty of Socratic philosophy is at its core. This is a must-read! Read this next to Karatani’s Isonomia and the Birth of Philosophy

15. Psychoanalysis and Transversality Texts and Interviews 1955–1971, Felix Guattari

I loved these essays on psychoanalysis and Lacan in particular. Guattari’s entire orientation becomes much clearer in these short pieces. 

16. The Neganthropocene, Bernard Stiegler 

Stiegler’s collection of essays on the Anthropocene are quite interesting. I find his approach to intellectual reasoning quite comprehensive and rare. 

17. The Burnout Society, Byung Chul Han 

This short manifesto is deeply compelling. I find Han’s style infectious and even though I actually end up disagreeing with much of his reading of contemporary thought, he is one of the most important thinkers today. 

18. The New Radicalism in America: [1889 – 1963] The Intellectual as Social Type, Christopher Lasch 

I enjoyed reading this book along with The Minimal Self and the inimitable Age of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Returns. A couple of years ago I gave a lecture on Lasch which you can listen to here

19. John Brown, W.E.B. DuBois 

I loved this biography of John Brown. If there is justice in this world a film will be made on John Brown that really conveys his significance for our time. 

Contemporary Memoirs

I found Motherhood: A Novel by Sheila Heti and The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson very indicative of our current moment. I didn’t like these works and I don’t like much new literature. I can’t say more at the moment but in time I hope to write more about this feeling that contemporary literature gives me. I have been listening to Knausgaard’s My Struggle and am finding it similarly off-putting. Perhaps I am not of the contemporary.  

Best Secondary Literature and Essays

The Wager of Lucien Goldmann: Tragedy, Dialectics and a Hidden God, Mitchell Cohen 

Dominiek Hoens’s entry on Lacan for the new Routledge Handbook of Psychoanalytic Political Theory edited by Yannis Stavrakakis

Nothingness and Event, Lucca Fraser 

Why the Family is Beautiful: Lacan Against Badiou, Eleanor Kaufmann 

Line of Escape: Gilles Deleuze’s Encounter with George Jackson, Michelle Koerner 

What’s Ahead in 2020:

My first book, co-edited with Ramon Harvey, Justice in Islam: New Ethical Perspectives and Global Directions will be published in 2020. Additionally, I am continuing to develop essays from my dissertation on political community which may be coming together into something like a collection of essays. 

At the moment I am working on the following texts:

An American Body Politic: A Deleuzian Approach, Bernd Herzogenrath 

Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle, Pierre Klossowski

Nietzsche, the Aristocratic Rebel Intellectual Biography and Critical Balance-Sheet, Domenico Losurdo

Additionally, I intend to pursue the following projects:

  • A deep dive into the collected works of Alexandra Kollontai who has written on the family, sexuality and the role of women from a revolutionary Marxist perspective. 
  • A long essay or even a monograph on Kantian Marxism.
  • Continuing to refine my work on the historical periodization of sublimation in politics.
  • In a few weeks, I am delivering a paper at the American Philosophical Association with Georgetown Professor and Psychoanalyst Wilfried Ver Eecke entitled “The Shipwreck of Oedipus: Mapping the Post-Oedipal” 



One response

  1. David Moore

    Hi Daniel,
    I have manged to read all three volumes of Deutscher on Trotsky in 2019, mind you it had been in my personal library for 40 years before I made a genuine attempt to read it.
    For its time, and even now it is a wonderful piece of scholarship.Also read 1905 by Trotsky .truly a stunning wordsmith.Other authors works that I find compelling to read are anything by Victor Serge and James Baldwin.
    As Regards Zizek , I have read quite a few of his titles, thought his book on Event was the easiest to understand from a first reading point of view ,whereas other titles require a second read and a conscious effort to learn the concepts such as big other etc .
    Retired Postal Worker Australia

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