Philosophy books often don’t get their due. They’re usually long, often badly written, frequently pompous and annoying, and sometimes even poorly edited. But 2014 has been a hallmark year for works of philosophy that can genuinely impact your life (even in the immediate future) without becoming self-help nonsense. These books deal try to change what is possible in politics, sex, feminism, art, and more.
Elaine Scarry, Thermonuclear Monarchy (W.W. Norton & Co.)
Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain is without question one of the most illuminating books we have about the body, language, and torture. A crude summary: a tortured body is a body that struggles to create its own world. Scarry’s new book suggests that nations with nuclear weapons are exacting a kind of torture on nations without them. It’s a mind-blowing argument against nuclear proliferation, and it goes so far as to recommend the eradication of our global nuclear arsenal.
Jacqueline Rose, Women in Dark Times (Bloomsbury)
In her final interview, Marilyn Monroe stated: “I don’t look on myself as a commodity, but I’m sure a lot of people have.” In this book, which places Monroe next to Rosa Luxemburg and others, Jacqueline Rose posits a feminism wherein women are “dark interpreters” of capitalism and human history. She embraces a feminism of violence, scandal, and contradiction. “Women have been reasonable for far too long.”
Boris Groys, On the New (Verso)
Groys is sort of the opposite of Slavoj Žižek. He’s a paradoxical thinker whose contributions to the philosophy of art can’t be overstated. In this book, he considers what makes a cultural object genuinely new, and I would argue that his rubric for newness explains everything from why an artwork is purchased by MoMA to more absurd things, like normcore.
Jacques Rancière, Moments Politiques (7 Stories)
At the heart of Rancière’s philosophy is a statement that many find hard to accept: no one has more of a capacity for intelligence than anyone else. For Rancière, this is is less a matter of evidence and more an idea from which we should always proceed. In this collection of short essays, Rancière applies this logic to a number of cultural and political events from the last few decades. Frankly, it’s amazing what happens when you walk down the street and don’t assume that other people are idiots. Now imagine this as a philosophy of living.
Francis Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay (FSG)
I can’t pretend that I love Fukuyama, the man who is most responsible for the idea that history ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union. But I can say that he’s often misunderstood, and that a new work by him demands considerable attention, and is probably even read by presidential advisors. In this book, he somewhat revises and expands his philosophy of the “end of history” and points out something we may all already agree on: the U.S. is in a state of political decay.
Jonathan Crary, 24/7 (Verso)
Ever wonder why you can’t sleep at night? This book will change the way you think about night and day. It argues that capitalism has encroached upon our circadian rhythms and is now colonizing nighttime.
Peter Sloterdijk, Globes (MIT Press)
Sloterdijk is a weird walrus of a man, and his guru vibes sometimes annoy me, but everyone I know (including myself) who has read the first book from his Spheres trilogy, Bubbles, can’t wait for this book to arrive (this month). These books are almost impossible to summarize, but I will say that they develop a philosophy of space out of a theory of human intimacy. From there they begin to explain why “globalism” has become the catchword for our modern worldview.
Lauren Berlant, Lee Edelman, Sex, or the Unbearable (Duke University Press)
This book actually came out last December, but everything that Lauren Berlant writes should be read by everyone, I think. The title implies that sex itself is unbearable, and this is definitely true for many people, but the book is actually a kind of dialogue about how sex leads to unbearable thoughts, feelings, and truths.
Frédéric Gros, A Philosophy of Walking (Verso Books)
Like a bored elderly person, I’ve recently taken to walking. This book delves into the history of walking as a philosophical action. It’s pretty simple: when you walk, you think. And this process can open up new spaces, both in the world and in your life. Unpretentious and refreshing, Gros considers himself a philosopher of “ordinary things.”
Vilem Flusser, On Doubt (Univocal)
This newly translated book, from the great media philosopher Vilem Flusser, asks whether doubt has replaced a belief in God in the secular world. In other words, has pervasive doubt taken up the role that religion used to play in our lives? The book claims so, but it also looks toward a world where doubt isn’t the central factor in our lives.