For the end of 2015, when this blog has been less than it should have been, and for the start of 2016, when it will be more than it has been, we offer five short lists of five cultural highlights from the past year. Each of the five of us at Illuminations is contributing five things, whether movies, television series, books, exhibitions or whatever, that have meant something significant to us during the year. Today’s choice is Tom Allen‘s, again offered in no particular order.
• Thesis on History by Walter Benjamin/Fire Alarm by Michael Löwy
I’ve included these together as Benjamin’s short essay is wonderfully explored in Löwy‘s slim book. I’ve often struggled with Benjamin due to his almost aphoristic prose, but Löwy picks apart key passages as well as historicising the essay in the context of the rise of Nazism in Benjamin’s native Germany and his unease with Stalinism in the Soviet Union. Moreover, Löwy key point is – and this is perhaps central to my previous misunderstanding of Benjamin – that the use of Marxism, Jewish mysticism, and Romanticism aren’t antithetical to one another in Benjamin’s thinking, rather they complement one another to elucidate a theory of history that is materialist, a rejection of historical progress, and an attempt to theorise history from below.
More: the Wikipedia page about Michael Löwy.
• Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald
I’ve not read much fiction this year, sadly, but W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn was astounding. The metaphor of the rings of Saturn sums up the book; whereby one can only speculate as to what kind of disaster must have happened in order for Saturn to gain it’s rings. The notion of history in the book is ‘post modern’ inasmuch as history is understood as a falsification of perspective (this, he shares with Joyce incidentally), but his work doesn’t imply an irrationalism and relativism that postmodernism is so often is accused of. It’s of no great surprise that Benjamin is a huge of influence on Sebald as they both share a similar notion that what history is, is ultimately negativity. In one particular striking passage, Sebald reflects on the impossibility of remembering a battlefield writes and that perhaps what history is at it’s most fundamental level is a pile of corpses.
More: a recent Paul MacInnes Guardian feature about Sebald’s journey.
‘picks apart the thinking that has framed the ‘war on terror’ the past fifteen years from both conservatives and liberals as they are both predicated on the same flawed thinking; one that refuses to engage with the political (read: Western foreign policy) rather that cultural or religious roots of terrorism. Alongside this alternative thinking on causes and origins of extremism, Kundani illustrates the systematic targeting of Muslims by their governments in the US and UK and the rise of Islamophobia with groups like the EDL.
More: Arun Kundani’s website.
• Inside Llewyn Davis
What if Ulysses focused primarily on Stephen Dedalus, rather than Leopold Bloom and he was a folk music in New York 1960s? Ok, so this isn’t exactly the premise of the film, but there are certainly direct references as well as thematic overlaps; both Davis and Stephen are failed or failing artists and both are exiled in their own city, although Stephen is far more sympathetic in my opinion than Davies. A friend of mine, whose theory I’m about to steal, thinks that the film is an allegory of the of the failure of the 60s both culturally and politically. The entry of a certain well-known folk singer at the end is then a reminder of how the ’60s itself is a constructed fantasy while the ‘truth’ of the decade lies with Davies and his failure. Also, Justin Timberlake should do more folk music.
• BoJack Horseman
I’ve Todd to thank for this as he first recommended it. A sitcom (see lead image) that focuses on a middle-aged actor who made his name and money in a hackneyed ’90s sitcom. He’s also a cartoon horse. The first few episodes are laugh out loud funny but as the series(s) on Netflix progresses it becomes quite dark as it explores BoJack’s depression which gives it a surprising emotional weight I don’t normally associate with sitcoms, let alone animated ones.