Influential Books: AUFS for the Uninitiated

Recently, following Adam’s lead, we all had a discussion taking stock of where AUFS has been and where it should go. As a forum and platform to share ideas and have discussions with colleagues, both younger and older, when we physically can’t, AUFS has been invaluable and I’m glad to be a part of it. Colin suggested, in the midst of the discussion, that the main page authors describe their most influential books as a way of helping those who feel uninitiated find a way into what we tend to write about here. So, what follows below is my list with some comments on each book.

The truth, for me, is somewhat embarrassing. I still feel like my work is tarrying with a number of books I read during my third year of university. Specifically the Spring semester I spent studying in Paris. The effect these books had on me was affective. That is, they don’t necessarily represent the works I engage with academically, but they have set the tone for most of the intellectual work I’ve done after reading them and I have found myself coming back to their themes and their style of thought in nearly everything I’ve done since.

While I had read Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy and Thus Spoke Zarathustra before, I hadn’t yet read his other major works. Towards the end of the trip I ran out of money and spent three days in the room I rented from a Royalist family reading all the books of Nietzsche collected in the Modern Library’s Basic Writings of Nietzsche. I remember being very struck by the attempt to think about human action outside of a transcendent system of good and evil in the Genealogy of Morals and Beyond Good and Evil. I spent a lot of my undergraduate years trying to square the kind of naturalism or immanentism I found there with the drive to create a better world, while recognizing that, if Nietzsche was right, we may not yet even know how to think what a better world would be. We don’t yet know how to measure the value of our world. While during my MA my interest in Nietzsche waned, it was because I became dissatisfied with his answers, but not the questions he brought to light.

This was also the time I first read Deleuze & Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus. This book has become, in some circles, a bit domesticated either through sober academic reflection upon it or through an easy political dismissal of it as another instance of intellectual leftism (as opposed to the somehow more serious clinging to Marxist party politics and philosophy). Yet, I found the book helped me to understand my situation, helped me to understand how thought could be creative and, regardless of eventual failure, resist being captured and overcoded by the axioms of capitalism. I also found parts of it fascinating precisely because I didn’t understand them and so I spent a lot of the trip, and subsequent years, trying to get to grips with what exactly they meant by the Body without Organs and desiring-machines, with codes and overcoding, with a view of history where desire is the driving engine and how the creations themselves become captured and turned into repressive machines. I was also fascinated by their discussion of nature, the way they brought together the artificial with what is commonly thought of to be “the natural”, and this became the basis for a lot of the work I’ve done with restoration ecology.

Finally, and perhaps predictably, there was Philip Goodchild’s Capitalism and Religion: The Price of Piety. I have a very clear memory of buying the book at the Chicago Seminary Co-op in Hyde Park on a crisp late winter day and even now I can remember the smell it had. I had been on the look out for it after having googled “Deleuze and religion”, which in 2003 brought you first to Philip Goodchild’s faculty page. The book somehow straddles the line between academic study and something more important, more personal, to the practice of thought itself as it brings together a far ranging reading of critical theory/Continental philosophy of religion and social/political problems in capitalism under the condition of a collision between ecology and economy. Reading Goodchild’s book I felt like all my interests had been brought together and dealt with better than I ever could: the history of philosophy is creatively deployed to deal with problems, thought is put under the condition that it tarry with real social and political problems, a theory of religion is put forth that doesn’t reject or accept religion as such but subjects it to an evaluation of its potencies. I have tried to mimic the posture of the book in my work and extend the style of thought to questions that are raised but not completely dealt with in the book. One of those problems, in my view, was the incomplete notion of nature. So, in my MA thesis I engaged with Bergson and Deleuze/Guattari in an attempt to untangle problems inherent to restoration ecology, bringing together a strong historical study of the three thinkers with the goal of thinking through a real problem.

These are the books I feel like guide my thinking the most. There are of course many others that have come after, and some novels that came before (Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle probably had more to do with my turning away from orthodox notions of faith, but not turning to Dawkins-esque atheism either, than any theoretical book), but when I think of what books have brought me to where I am right now, what books have shaped my thought, and even what books have changed my life in very material ways (I now live in Nottingham because I wanted to study with Goodchild), these are the ones that leap to mind.

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3 Responses to “Influential Books: AUFS for the Uninitiated”

  1. Colin Says:

    Wonderful – this post has satisfied many of my desires. Three books later and I might start being able to better process some of these discussions more productively.

  2. myles Says:

    I love these kinds of intellectual biographies. Thanks for doing this.

  3. Dave Mesing Says:

    Although I’m much younger, I feel that my time abroad was pretty formative as well, especially through extended engagement with Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. Now, after reading some contemporary constructive work, akin to your reading of Goodchild, I’m starting to sense how my thought patterns are being molded, although I am of course still into it, and whether I’m able to go to grad school and where will probably have more concrete consequences for my thinking. Thanks for the post. These narrative CVs are always good to read, and I’ve found that trying to write them helps make things clearer for me, as well.

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