Culturally-significant texts – Across genres, across the ages


Social Science

Simulacra and Simulation

Simulacra and Simulation
Jean Baudrillard

You’ve got to be quite the academic mind to pick up Simulacra and Simulation – or anything by critical philosopher Jean Baudrillard. But that doesn’t mean you’ve not been impacted by his work. Indeed, if you’ve seen The Matrix, you’ve been introduced. The film was profoundly influenced by Simulacra…, and the book was required reading for actors who were going to participate in what became one of the most important and successful films of recent decades. Now, Baudrillard himself¬† certainly had his concerns about the link between his philosophizing and Keanu Reeves, calling The Matrix’ interpretation of his work a misreading or distortion at best. But whatever, Baudrillard. That’s what happens when you toss ideas out there. They get altered with every reading.

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The Souls of Black Folk

The Souls of Black Folk
W.E.B. DuBois

W.E.B. DuBois’ collection of essays is a foundational work not just of the politics of race in America, but of processes of racialization and of sociology in general. Based upon a series of articles first published in The Atlantic Monthly it is at once a work of history, political struggle, social theory and literature.¬†The Souls of Black Folk is huge. And essential reading for anyone who wants to examine how social relationships are built, maintained, and potentially transformed. As a biographer wrote, “Few books make history and fewer still become foundational texts for the movements and struggles of an entire people. The Souls of Black Folk occupies this rare position. It helped to create the intellectual argument for the black freedom struggle in the twentieth century. Souls… justified the pursuit of higher education for Negroes and thus contributed to the rise of the black middle class. By describing a global color-line, Du Bois anticipated pan-Africanism and colonial revolutions in the Third World. Moreover, this stunning critique of how ‘race’ is lived through the normal aspects of daily life is central to what would become known as ‘whiteness studies’ a century later.”

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The Gulag Archipelago

The Gulag Archipelago
Aleksander Solzhenitsyn

Published in the west beginning in 1974, Solzhenitsyn’s massive discussion of forced labour in the USSR was widely circulated underground in that country until 1989, and is now part of Russia’s standard high school curriculum. The Gulag – an acronym for Chief Administration of Corrective Labour Camps – was a network of forced labour facilities most notable for its punitive use against political prisoners and critics of the state, which was largely downplayed if not outright denied in the Soviet bloc and came to represent to critical socialists the very worst of Stalinist totalitarianism and to pro-Western advocates the natural outcome of the socialist project. Solzhenitsyn described a vast penal apparatus that functioned both politically and economically – to isolate ‘anti-social’ and anti-state elements while serving as quiet deterrent to the general population and provide a massive pool of effectively-slave labour for the construction of infrastructure and public works. Continue reading “The Gulag Archipelago”


Edward Said

Said’s analysis of power and knowledge as they appear in Western representations of the Middle East has become a classic text of post-colonial theory and has entered the canon of post-structuralism more generally – though Said, it should be noted, considered his work to be firmly grounded within the humanist tradition to arise out of the Enlightenment. Rooted in historical and literary analysis, it argues, in short, that Western perceptions about the Middle East are based not on actual knowledge of the region but on a long-standing archtypical conception in which something called ‘the East’ is fundamentally dissimilar to and at odds with something called ‘the West’. Continue reading “Orientalism”

The German Ideology

The German Ideology
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

Before there was The Communist Manifesto there was The German Ideology, Marx’ and Engels’ first thorough articulation of the theoretical framework that would come to be called Marxism – its historical materialism, its critique of capitalism, its idea of socialism. It is, really, an outline or notebook, a text in which Marx and Engels work through the insights and critical appraisals of other thinkers in order to set out what’s different about their own analysis. That is, The German Ideology is not the place to go for the most sophisticated or polished word on Marx’s framework; but it is the place to go to see how Marx got to his framework, how he put it all together in the early years, and where the origins lie of so many other of his and Engels’ works. Continue reading “The German Ideology”

The Golden Bough

The Golden Bough
James Frazer

“I realized then that anthropology, as presented by Sir James Frazer, is a great science, worthy of as much devotion as any of her elder and more exact studies and I became bound to the service of Frazerian anthropology.” Bronislaw Malinowski, by all accounts one of the most significant and influential figures in the development of anthropology, started here, with Frazer, with The Golden Bough, a study of comparative religion that not only helped to shape anthropology as an academic discipline but profoundly influenced a whole lot of the literature that appears on this list and intellectual and artistic culture generally – Yeats, Lovecraft, D.F. Lawrence, Hemingway, Freud, William Carlos Williams, Wittgenstein, and – more recently – Joseph Campbell and Camille Paglia, to name just a few.

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First Principles

First Principles
Herbert Spencer

In London’s Highgate Cemetary, the tombstone of Karl Marx looks out over another slab of rock, this one marking the interred remains of Herbert Spencer – at least as well-known and intellectually significant in in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, but largely forgotten shortly thereafter but for this simple phrase, “survival of the fittest”. Yup. That’s Spencer. Sociologist, biologist, philosopher, political theorist, radical democrat-turned-conservative, and the guy who planned to lay out for all the world to see a universal science/ philosophy in which the progressive force of evolution explained not only biological development but psychology, social order, and political life. Not enough? Not just evolutionary process but a rule of universal natural law would explain just about everything, once it was identified and explained. And Spencer figured he was the man to do it.

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Theory of the Leisure Class

The Theory of the Leisure Class
Thorstein Veblen

Economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen is a tough nut to crack. Half the time he wrote seriously, half the time he wrote satirically, and much of the time readers and even his own colleagues couldn’t tell which was which. Mostly he seemed to hate just about everything, reaching deep into human history and prehistory to make the point that the world of industrial liberal capitalism was in large part just more of the same human folly, vanity, and parasitism. Continue reading “Theory of the Leisure Class”

History of Sexuality

History of Sexuality, vol. 1
Michel Foucault

Such a small little book. Such a huge, huge impact. Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality is a tremendous work, not only profoundly impacting thinking on sexuality, but deepening his style of critical work on social institutions generally and introducing, in particular, the notion of bio-power – the processes and practices by which states regulate populations and control bodies.

The History of Sexuality is a three-volume work, but it is volume 1 that is most-read and most-noted. Against the conventional wisdom that that the modern state sought to repress expressions of human sexuality and deny the centrality of sex to life, Foucault explores the myriad ways sexuality was re-thought, re-articulated, deployed by agencies of the state to monitor, manage and exploit human populations. Sex is not ignored let alone erased in the nineteenth century; sex is everywhere, and becomes a matter of state interest as general populations are re-cast as citizenry, people as instruments of national production, communities as collections of human beings to be studied, managed, deployed for or against various ends.

A communist and structuralist thinker until the mid to late 1960s, Michel Foucault became one of the central figures in what was called post-structuralism, though he himself rejected the term, defining his work instead as a critique of modernity. Whatever you call it, it is important, it is influential, and there is scarcely a field in the social sciences untouched by Michel Foucault. Plus he didn’t bother nearly so much as most academics with endless footnotes and sources that just make stuff hard to read. For that, alone, I’m thankful.

Read The History of Sexuality, even if you’re not into the academic stuff. Or read Madness and Civilization, or read Discipline and Punish. This is work that not only changes academic discourse, it profoundly changes the way we see social institutions and our complicated relationships with them.

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