Front Table - 9/17/21

September 17th, 2021

On our Front Table this week, find new works of literary and cultural criticism, from an exploration of the role of nature in Black women's struggles against racism, to a global approach to literary history that reconceptualizes the rise of the novel. Find the following titles and more at semcoop.com.

Apocalypse of Truth (University of Chicago Press)
Jean Vioulac, tr. Matthew J. Peterson

We inhabit a time of crisis—totalitarianism, environmental collapse, and the unquestioned rule of neoliberal capitalism. Philosopher Jean Vioulac is invested in and worried by all of this, but his main concern lies with how these phenomena all represent a crisis within—and a threat to—thinking itself.    In his first book to be translated into English, Vioulac radicalizes Heidegger’s understanding of truth as disclosure through the notion of truth as apocalypse. This “apocalypse of truth” works as an unveiling that reveals both the finitude and mystery of truth, allowing a full confrontation with truth-as-absence. Engaging with Heidegger, Marx, and St. Paul, as well as contemporary figures including Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, and Slavoj Žižek, Vioulac’s book presents a subtle, masterful exposition of his analysis before culminating in a powerful vision of “the abyss of the deity.” Here, Vioulac articulates a portrait of Christianity as a religion of mourning, waiting for a god who has already passed by, a form of ever-present eschatology whose end has always already taken place. With a preface by Jean-Luc Marion, Apocalypse of Truth presents a major contemporary French thinker to English-speaking audiences for the first time.


The Art of Self Improvment (Yale University Press)
Anna Katharina Schaffner

Self-help today is a multi-billion-dollar global industry, one often seen as a by-product of neoliberalism and capitalism. Far from being a recent phenomenon, however, the practice of self-improvement has a long and rich history, extending all the way back to ancient China. For millennia, philosophers, sages, and theologians have reflected on the good life and devised strategies on how to achieve it. Focusing on ten core ideas of self-improvement that run through the world’s advice literature, Anna Katharina Schaffner reveals the ways they have evolved across cultures and historical eras, and why they continue to resonate with us today. Reminding us that there is much to learn from looking at time-honed models, Schaffner also examines the ways that self-improvement practices provide powerful barometers of the values, anxieties, and aspirations that preoccupy us at particular moments in time and expose basic assumptions about our purpose and nature.


Encounters with Euclid  (Princeton University Press)
Benjamin Wardhaugh

In this lively and informative book, Benjamin Wardhaugh explains how Euclid’s text journeyed from antiquity to the Renaissance, introducing some of the many readers, copyists, and editors who left their mark on the Elements before handing it on. He shows how some read the book as a work of philosophy, while others viewed it as a practical guide to life. He examines the many different contexts in which Euclid’s book and his geometry were put to use, from the Neoplatonic school at Athens and the artisans’ studios of medieval Baghdad to the Jesuit mission in China and the workshops of Restoration London. Wardhaugh shows how the Elements inspired ideas in theology, art, and music, and how the book has acquired new relevance to the strange geometries of dark matter and curved space.Encounters with Euclid traces the life and afterlives of one of the most remarkable works of mathematics ever written, revealing its lasting role in the timeless search for order and reason in an unruly world.


Fear of a Black Universe (Basic Books)
Stephon Alexander

In this important guide to science and society, a cosmologist argues that physics must embrace the excluded, listen to the unheard, and be unafraid of being wrong.Years ago, cosmologist Stephon Alexander received life-changing advice: to discover real physics, he needed to stop memorizing and start taking risks. In Fear of a Black Universe, Alexander shows that great physics requires us to think outside the mainstream — to improvise and rely on intuition. His approach leads him to three principles that shape all theories of the universe: the principle of invariance, the quantum principle, and the principle of emergence. Alexander uses them to explore some of physics' greatest mysteries, from what happened before the big bang to how the universe makes consciousness possible. Drawing on his experience as a Black physicist, he makes a powerful case for diversifying our scientific communities. Compelling and empowering, Fear of a Black Universe offers remarkable insight into the art of physics.


Finding Ferrante (Columbia University Press)
Alessia Ricciardi

In Finding Ferrante, Alessia Ricciardi revisits questions about Ferrante’s identity to show how the problem of authorship is deeply intertwined with the novels’ literary ambition and politics. Going beyond the local and national cultures of Naples and Italy, Ricciardi reads Ferrante’s fiction as world literature, foregrounding Raja’s work as a translator. She examines the novels’ engagement with German literature and criticism, particularly Goethe, Walter Benjamin, and Christa Wolf, while also tracing the influence of Italian thinkers such as Antonio Gramsci, Carla Lonzi, and the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective. Considering central questions of sexuality, work, politics, and place, Ricciardi demonstrates how intertextual resonances reshape our understanding of Lila and Elena, the protagonists of the Neapolitan Quartet, as well as the characters and language of Ferrante’s other books. This bold reconsideration of one of today’s most acclaimed authors reveals Ferrante’s works as fiercely intellectual, showing their deep concern with feminist and cultural politics and the ethical and political stakes of literature.


The Heroine with 1001 Faces (Liveright Publishing Corporation)
Maria Tatar

The Heroine with 1,001 Faces dismantles the cult of warrior heroes, revealing a secret history of heroinism at the very heart of our collective cultural imagination. Maria Tatar, a leading authority on fairy tales and folklore, explores how heroines, rarely wielding a sword and often deprived of a pen, have flown beneath the radar even as they have been bent on redemptive missions. Deploying the domestic crafts and using words as weapons, they have found ways to survive assaults and rescue others from harm, all while repairing the fraying edges in the fabric of their social worlds. Like the tongueless Philomela, who spins the tale of her rape into a tapestry, or Arachne, who portrays the misdeeds of the gods, they have discovered instruments for securing fairness in the storytelling circles where so-called women’s work—spinning, mending, and weaving—is carried out. In a broad-ranging volume that moves with ease from the local to the global, Tatar demonstrates how our new heroines wear their curiosity as a badge of honor rather than a mark of shame, and how their “mischief making” evidences compassion and concern. 


Martial (The University of Chicago Press)
William Fitzgerald

In this age of the sound bite, what sort of author could be more relevant than a master of the epigram? Martial, the most influential epigrammatist of classical antiquity, was just such a virtuoso of the form, but despite his pertinence to today’s culture, his work has been largely neglected in contemporary scholarship. Arguing that Martial is a major author who deserves more sustained attention, William Fitzgerald provides an insightful tour of his works, shedding new and much-needed light on the Roman poet’s world—and how it might speak to our own.Writing in the late first century CE—when the epigram was firmly embedded in the social life of the Roman elite—Martial published his poems in a series of books that were widely read and enjoyed. Exploring what it means to read such a collection of epigrams, Fitzgerald examines the paradoxical relationship between the self-enclosed epigram and the book of poems that is more than the sum of its parts.Chock-full of epigrams itself—in both Latin and English versions—Fitzgerald’s study will delight classicists, literary scholars, and anyone who appreciates an ingenious witticism.


Paper Graveyards (MIT Press)
Eduardo Cadava

Paper Graveyards is neither a work of traditional art history nor one of literary criticism. It is not strictly a history of ideas either, notwithstanding its very obvious erudition. Rather, in drawing upon all of these methods and approaches—and with extraordinary attention to language and style—Cadava's writing examines the spectacular explosion of images during the last twenty years as a prompt to discuss not simply specific images but the role and place of these images in our everyday life. Considering work by Félix Nadar, Roland Barthes, Leon Golub, Nancy Spero, Fazal Sheikh, Susan Meiselas, and others, Cadava delineates different modes of reading that, taking their point of departure from the conviction that the past, the present, and the future are always bound together, provide us with a training manual of sorts for understanding visual material in the twenty-first century. In the process, these generously illustrated essays actively expand our sense of literacy by reconstructing the networks of relations that inhabit the plural worlds of images, and create a critical genealogy of what we still call “an image,” even when, with every day that passes, we perhaps understand less and less what this might mean.


Public Confessions (The University of North Carolina Press)
Rebecca L. Davis

Personal reinvention is a core part of the human condition. Yet in the mid-twentieth century, certain private religious choices became lightning rods for public outrage and debate. Public Confessions reveals the controversial religious conversions that shaped modern America. Rebecca L. Davis explains why the new faiths of notable figures including Clare Boothe Luce, Whittaker Chambers, Sammy Davis Jr., Marilyn Monroe, Muhammad Ali, Chuck Colson, and others riveted the American public. Unconventional religious choices charted new ways of declaring an “authentic” identity amid escalating Cold War fears of brainwashing and coercion. Facing pressure to celebrate a specific vision of Americanism, these converts variously attracted and repelled members of the American public. Whether the act of changing religions was viewed as selfish, reckless, or even unpatriotic, it provoked controversies that ultimately transformed American politics. Public Confessions takes intimate history to its widest relevance, and in so doing, makes you see yourself in both the private and public stories it tells.

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