Reviews of Stephen H. Riggins' Published Books




The Pleasures of Time: Two Men, A Life (Toronto, ON: Insomniac Press, 2003). 310 pp.

 

“Stephen Harold Riggins and Paul Bouissac have shared an interesting life, having traveled the world and crossed paths with such intellectual luminaries as Claude Lévi-Strauss, Allan Bloom, Michel Foucault, A. J. Greimas, and John Cage. But in The Pleasures of Time: Two Men, a Life, Riggins attempts to provide more than a romantic travelogue or eyewitness intellectual history. His book is both biography and autobiography – as well as literary criticism, cultural history, sociological study, and tenderly crafted family album. This is not to say that the book lacks focus; each of these approaches is necessary in its turn, as Riggins celebrates his decades-long relationship with Bouissac, a scholar, novelist, circus aficionado, and reluctant subject….

In a final swipe at the chronological imperative that drives most memoirs, Riggins waits until his final chapter, ‘Stolen Time,’ to tell the story of his inauspicious first weeks with Bouissac. Because we know how strong this relationship has become in spite of these early missteps, the latter become testimony to how far people can come when they refuse to be satisfied with what they think they know about each other. If there is one constant theme throughout the shifts in perspective, time, and place, it is the elusiveness of perfect understanding. Riggins challenges us to confront our failed or partial knowledge of those we love, and to realize that what we have become together has been shaped by who we are, and what we love, apart.”

THOMAS MARCH, The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, January-February 2004.

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“As interesting as this book is, even to a reader less fascinated with circuses and/or the making of the reputation of French 19th century composers, the most exceptional and attractive aspect of the book is the way it is written. None of the writing is in the least chronological. Riggins moves back and forth across time. Some episodes even stand completely alone, without any apparent connection to the context they are embedded in – a fact that makes the work a remarkable yet quite confusing read. Riggins quite intentionally chose this approach. It emphasizes the personal character of the book, but more importantly, his deliberate stirring and even ‘de’construction of expected coherent narrative in the ‘auto’biography illustrates the imperfection and subjectivity of what is generally the source of all history and historiography: memory.”

PHILIPP MAURER, Canadian Literature, Summer 2005.

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“I’ve just glimpsed through sections of the book, and find that there’s a lot of fine and vivid detail, both personal and professional. I’m already taken with the sense of humour and the personal narrative line that shows up very clearly. Laughed out loud at ‘You could have played checkers on his coattails as he went out the door.’ The work should prove to be a delightful and enlightening read to many others who have lived through those decades.

…We all know, Stephen, that it is the drive and the authentic heart of a writer that makes the final work worth the reader’s time. I certainly look forward to sharing the world of your printed page.”

WAYSON CHOY, novelist, personal letter, August 4, 2003.

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“The tales of trying to run a circus in Canada are hilarious, even to someone with no interest in circuses (either the three-ring American extravaganzas or the smaller and sometimes artistic French ones). Early on, Riggins records Bouissac’s explanation for the latter’s fascination with the circus, which ‘for many people is just a synonym for vulgarity and excess. He responded that when he was a child, the circus had embodied a parallel universe, [with] everything denied a little child in a small provincial town in France.’

Riggins is a good observer and writes very well about what he observed. Once I relaxed my expectations of linearity and of anything resembling a chronological narrative or any explanation of how a relationship in which the partners are geographically separated two-third of the time survives, I enjoyed the pieces….

I particularly enjoyed the pontillistic portraits that emerge of Riggins’s ‘surrogate grandmother’ back in Indiana, the more straightforward portraits of his piano teacher, the incisive analyses of Allan Bloom (which goes into the accuracy of his transformation into Ravelstein), the late music of Gabriel Fauré, and of the French style of being open about having a lover of the same-sex but not being defined by a politicized gay identity in the North American manner (corroborating Edmund White’s account in The Flaneur). There are sections I skimmed through, but although I had not intended to read the book this past weekend, I couldn’t put it down until I had reached the end.”

STEPHEN O. MURRAY, sociologist and gay activist, Epinions.com, May 12, 2003.

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“I first read The Pleasures of Time in the early summer soon after it appeared in print. I have since read it again (something I hardly ever take the time to do!), and have picked it up over and over to savour its wisdom, its gentle yet clever framing, its capacity to distil Paul Bouissac’s semiotic and cultural studies research without, as Riggins so evocatively and effectively puts it ‘…making anyone cross-eyed.’ This is a sociological book that defies categorization. It is an examination of the intertwined lives of two men, of the birth and growth of cultural studies over a critical historical period, of Bouissac’s and Riggins’ wondrous encounters with the unexpected (the title of the penultimate chapter is ‘The Search for the Unexpected’) both intellectually and personally, of their amazing personal intersections with Lévi-Strauss, Foucault (who Riggins interviewed – a rare event indeed!), Sartre and de Beauvoir, Alan Bloom (the list goes on), and of an era of tumult, politically and socially. It is also very much a personal history, a kind of auto-ethnography, of a committed gay relationship and of the transforming and transformative gay world in the late 20th century. And it is anthropological ethnography as well. It is, in sum, an extraordinary book, a significant book and a book that touches the reader’s heart as well as the reader’s mind.

… This is a book worthy of a wide sociology and anthropology readership. It is a tender study of social change, of couplehood in changing times, and of cultural history from the insider’s perch.”

SUSAN A. MCDANIEL, FRSC, Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, on-line book reviews, August 2004.

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“Stephen Harold Riggins would be content working as an antique market peddler the rest of his life. Instead, the author, with archival tenacity, has transformed his diaries into an exploration of his complex relationship with his partner, author and circus intellect Paul Bouissac. The outcome is The Pleasures of Time: Two Men A Life. Riggins’s analysis of the past is something to behold. Dripping with themes of surrealism and semiotics, he takes the reader on a cultural and intellectual journey through the ‘70s and ‘80s. Whether through conversations with philosophers, touching letters from a juggler or Bouissac’s quest to produce The Circus of the Century, Riggins holds nothing back. He exposes the hearts of his acquaintances and the reader soon takes on the eyes of a surrealist. You’ll find yourself staring at stop signs or anxious for the buskers to arrive. Romantic and inspiring, you’ll want to read passages from this book over and over again.”

CHARLES DAUPHINEE, The Coast, Halifax, April 23, 2003.

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“The potential for this project to go wrong, even to fail, was huge. An error of tone, an ax to grind, a simple misunderstanding, could have sent the entire effort into a death dive. The Pleasures of Time is improbably free of the kinds of mistakes that could have easily ruined it. I believe it will stand as a classic of gay studies. The relationship he describes and the parties to it are extraordinary. His attention to detail, and his quiet, deferential tone manage to hold both Bouissac and himself (and the circus, and French intellectual life) in a steady light. It incidentally provides one of the most detailed accounts I have read of the intellectual fervor in the meeting of French philosophy and American social science from the 1960s to today.

…His tendency to direct his analyses uncomfortably close to home … might be unsettling for some readers. Not me. As much as he would resist being read in this way, I
think Riggins has a rare distinctive voice.”

DEAN MCCANNELL, University of California at Davis.

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“His most recent book, The Pleasures of Time, evokes so many important aspects of what it means to be a public intellectual and how much this is bound up in, as he suggests, ‘private conversations.’ His diarised observations, always impeccably grounded in appropriate theory, evoked for me a similar work by someone, who in many ways, was Riggins’ contemporary, the exceptionally gifted anthropologist Eric Michaels. Michaels wrote a similar, albeit shorter piece as he was dying of AIDS in a Brisbane hospital in the late 1980s and his work with Indigenous communities here and in the United states stands, like Riggins’, as highly significant contributions to the growing volume of writings that have emerged from scholarly engagement with Native communities in Both Canada and Australia.”

MICHAEL MEADOWS, Griffith University, Queensland, Australia.

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“The exquisitely titled biography The Pleasures of Time is a book-length tribute by Stephen Harold Riggins to his long-time partner Paul Bouissac. Their life together takes them to Paris, The Hague, London, Toronto and Loogootee, Indiana….

The French-born intellectual Bouissac became enthralled with the circus, and incorporated his love for it into his writing and his thinking. He studied with Claude Lévi-Strauss, who encouraged Bouissac in his interest in the semiotics and social anthropology of the circus. (Doesn’t the phrase ‘the semiotics of the circus’ just reek of the French intelligentsia? Who else but the French would develop a theory of the circus?)…. Some of the most fascinating passages of the book are anecdotes in the first chapter about Bouissac’s adventures with lions and bears. To dream of running off to join a circus is clichéd; to actually do so eclectic.

… Riggins has captured a moment in gay history and has created an interesting and unique record of it.”

KEN SCHELLENBERG, Lambda Book Report, January-March 2004.

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“…While Riggins’s vivid prose does have the quality of a fading and discoloured photograph, and an almost nostalgic musical air, the ‘expertise’ on display is more often that of the casual biographer and literary stylist than of the sociologist or semiotician. Riggins has a remarkable talent for evoking vivid scenes of domestic life, private conversations in cafés, quirky encounters on the street, and bizarre public spectacles while endowing them with broader historical significance and providing them with an almost allegorical meaning. All are culled from an impressively eclectic range of sources….

…Since The Pleasures of Time is a collage of images, musical notes and texts, it demands an effort of looking, listening and reading that exceeds the merely psycho-physiological acts of seeing, hearing and deciphering to produce the kind of ‘shimmering’ that Roland Barthes calls signifying.

If one of the most pleasurable aspects of The Pleasures of Time is its composition in diary-like entries and its pithy, anecdotal style, then one of its most innovative features consists of the way these pieces perform and exemplify the relationship between Riggins and Bouissac and between them and the reader. Since it is impossible to say everything or to spell out anything completely, these relationships are defined as much by what is uttered on the one side as by what remains silent on the other, and thus as much by the significance of the words, images and sounds that articulate these relationships as by the blank spaces, temporal gaps and silences between them. It is characteristic of Riggins’s keen attunement to this unspoken dimension of the production and consumption of meaning and its variations that it structures the whole of his account: from the homely ‘Interlude’ on his childhood in Indiana … to Foucault’s sublime response to the first question of the interview, which alludes to the many forms of silence experienced by those growing up in Catholic France.

All readers of this book will find a point of reflection or place of resonance in the events and situations described, as its ‘allegorical’ structure and construction in pieces encourage the pursuit of daydreams and distracted memories.”

THOMAS M. KEMPLE, The Semiotic Review of Books, Vol. 14, No. 3, 2004.

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“In your hands, Paul Bouissac emerges as a charismatic and fascinating individual; yet for all the wealth of biographical detail and anecdote which you build up around him, he remains for me strangely insubstantial, mercurial, a mystery wrapped in an enigma. Perhaps this is intentional? Or inevitable, considering the complexity of the subject?

… I enjoyed reading The Pleasures of Time and that despite my instinctive distrust of all things Victoria College (I went to Trin), of avant-garde flakiness, semiotics, and (I cannot tell a lie) pretentious French intellectuals. (I would have been hard pressed, for example, not to tip old M. Foucault off your balcony when he started blathering on about the ‘very, very intense pleasure’ he once experienced when he thought he was dying after being hit by a car. Let him relive the happy moment, I say…. Requiescas in pace, Michel.) I fully expected, anyway to be bored by/dislike your book, and yet I found myself engrossed by it. And that is very much a tribute to the eclectic charm of your writing: unpretentious, unhurried, honest in the fact of perplexity and faithful to the real texture of lived experience. Paul was right when he suggested it might make a novel … if only its central character wasn’t so very improbably. (Yes, Paul too must get a nod; he’s the other half of the equation. I can quite see why you started your book all those years ago. French intellectual, or no.) Thank you for the unexpected pleasure.”

STEPHEN COLLINGTON, novelist, personal letter, March 29, 2006.

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“The elegance of Riggins’ prose is complicated by the threads he is trying to keep together and thus requires patience until the shifting rhythms become familiar. The story is somewhat sociological, but far too intimate and affectionate to be strictly academic. After all, the object of Riggins’ long-standing devotion is an experimental novelist whose primary work as a scholar is the semiotics of the circus and who is not especially cooperative about being interviewed and textualized. He’s a complex character who has ‘an outburst of complaints’ about the interview process, but who also will burst spontaneously into interpretive dances to draw his partner and chronicler from his ‘sullenness.’ For many years, Riggins, reveals, he kept his diaries secret from Paul, but his documentary record allows us such poetically charming and tender moments as when Paul tells him, ‘I could like to be a unicorn. I would rest my horn on your shoulder.’ But the book has more tones than just the analytical academic, the recalcitrant interviewee, the impromptu choreographer, and the intimate lover.

… As part of his retrospective, Riggins populates their story with interesting peripheral characters, including Christian, my favourite. Paul describes Christian as ‘a saint of the circus,’ ‘a restless, obstinate idealist,’ completely dedicated to juggling. In still other spots, Riggins is rankled by a minister who refers to someone ‘who led a homosexual lifestyle – as though there is only one gay lifestyle’ and is victim to teenaged verbal aggression when a boy ridiculously refers to Riggins’ Tai Chi as ‘faggot karate.’ It is an eclectic telling of an eclectic life shared by committed partners….”

MARY A. MURPHY, Life Writing, Vol. 3, No. 1, 2006.


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The Language and Politics of Exclusion: Others in Discourse (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1997). 294 pp.


"There is originality in the essays and much to learn about the mischief of language, fair in its face but foul in the use.

The book is extremely instructive and profoundly enjoyable, especially for those who desire to expose the ‘rhetoric of Othering.’ The reviewer would like to warn the reader that he must pause and ponder if he is to gain the full savor of the points made by the sensitive intellectuals who have contributed articles to the book.

A wealth of information, unusually assembled, is what is offered to the reader. The while culture, the big corporate verbiage and fragile feedoms dressed in inspiring diction are what one will see in the chapters. The book is worth the time and money spent on it.”

V. R. Kirshna Iyver, The Hindu, February 3, 1998.


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The Socialness of Things: Essays on the Socio-semiotics of Objects (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1994). 482 pp .

“With the publication of The Socialness of Things, the socio-semiotics of objects has taken another major step forward. The editor, who was also the organizer of the 1990 conference at the University of Toronto where the papers in this volume were first presented, is to be congratulated – along with his contributors – for having pushed the study of material culture and sociology-anthropology of consumption in some radically new and productive directions.

Riggins’ own contribution, ‘Fieldwork in the Living Room: An Autoethnographic Essay’ is exemplary for its methodological rigour. In it, he proposes a series of analytical categories for eliciting the significances of the features of a room, both through observation of its contents and through conversation with its inhabitants. The result is a wonderfully ‘thick description’ of the interior decor of a lower middle-class home, which includes a record of some of the conflicts between the author and his mother over the purchase, placement and significance of certain objects.”

David Howes, Concordia University, The Semiotic Review of Books, January 1997.

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“The publication of this anthology by the prestigious European scholarly publishing house Mouton de Gruyter testifies to the quality of the papers. The studies in this volume provide insights into the human-object relationship by referring to manifestations of material culture cross-culturally. This anthology, which adds significantly to our knowledge of material culture, belongs in all major research libraries.

Appropriately dedicated to Paul Bouissac, the well-known University of Toronto semiotician, this volume acknowledges his recognition of ‘the theoretical potential of the socialness of things.’”

Frank Nuessel, University of Louisville, Canadian Journal of Sociology, Spring 1997.


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Ethnic Minority Media: An International Perspective (Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1992). 298 pp.

“Ethnic Minority Media provides an important if somewhat flawed addition to the literature on media-minority relations. The text is useful in the sense that the articles are well-written and clearly underscore the politics of ethnic media as instruments of empowerment and/or domination. The introductory chapter is nearly worth the price of admission itself as Riggins engages areas as disparate as multiculturalism, social movements, and ethnicity.

In short, this text on ethnic minority media represents a workable introduction for anyone interested in the field of minority-media relations. There is much of value for those interested in how ethnic identities are constructed, sustained, and reconstructed as salient features of society. The reward comes to those who begin to see ethnic minority media as essentially a contested site involving struggles between opposing ideologies and competing logics for control of the agenda. The final word in this field still needs to be explored, but Ethnic Minority Media certainly furnishes an admirable first step in that direction.”

Augie Fleras, University of Waterloo, Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, May 1993.

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“…This is a most valuable collection of case studies on ethnic minority uses of radio and print. Some of the authors are ‘insiders’ (members of the organizations about which they are writing), and certain aspects of their analysis reveal blind spots and lack of objectivity. …But their offenses are not grievous.

Most of the studies show commendable sensitivity to the problems faced by ethnic minorities seeking to work through the media…. Most importantly, readers will discover that it is very hard work to sustain an ethnic minority operation, with financing, in-group power struggles, the unconscious assumption of majority cultural values and styles, and (little noted by these authors) the drive toward ‘media professionalism’ as chief among the barriers to long-term operation, much less success. Still, there are enough success stories here to assure readers that the game indeed can be worth the candle, if it’s played carefully.”

Donald R. Browne, University of Minnesota, Intermedia, January-February 1993.

 

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“The main value of this book lies in the rich and detailed descriptions of ethnic minority media in various social locations. Each study is carefully researched, insightful, and provocative; one is struck by the great diversity of social arrangements that is possible in this area. The next step should be to use these case studies to develop generalizations relating the ethnic media to their environment, and to bring to bear on this subject recent sociological thinking on the salience of ethnic identities and the fluidity of ethnic boundaries. An important direction for future study, as indicated by several authors in this collection, is the role of the media in the political construction, as well as preservation, of ethnicity.

This collection, which will be of interest to students of ethnic relations, popular culture, and communications alike, provides us with extremely interesting and detailed case histories that may stimulate the necessary theoretical development.”

Elizabeth West, McGill University, Contemporary Sociology, March 1994.

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Beyond Goffman: Studies on Communication, Institution and Social Interaction (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1990). 456 pp.

“Most contributors, as Riggins notes in his introduction, take a critical stance toward Goffman’s work. In several papers, the task taken on is to situate Goffman’s work within biographical, disciplinary, and broader socio-political contexts.

This text, then, is no festschrift in the strict sense. Instead, because contributors ‘read’ Goffman’s work within the context of its production and also within the context of their current theoretical (and ideological) concerns, it is as much about the present state of social science as it is about Goffman’s work itself. As such, it reveals not only the nature of current intellectual debates, but also the extent to which our methods, our theories, and our representational practices are now being reassessed. For example, as accusations are made that the social sciences have failed to address questions about domination and exploitation, our texts inevitably reveal our own attempts to negotiate new ways of producing knowledge and articulating with the wider world.”

Valda Blundell, Carleton University, Semiotica, Vol. 93, Nos. 3 and 4.

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“Everyone, it seems, wants to appropriate some of Goffman for themselves. In the main, though, these theoretical assessments are cogently argued and, although many of the themes are familiar, their treatment here is unusually fresh – often quite novel – and clearly handled. These articles represent a very real contribution to our understanding of the generativeness of Goffman’s work for social theory.

But this volume accomplishes more than that. Respected though his work was, during his lifetime Goffman’s naturalistic scientific methods were perhaps not influential, in the sense that very few sociologists or anthropologists followed his ‘royal road’ of empirical investigation. Whilst some researchers may have responded to the ‘mentality’ of Goffman’s approach, they have not (with a few noted exceptions…) adopted an explicitly Goffmanian ethnographic methodology. However, some of the articles in this collection represent a perceptible shift in this respect.”

Paul Drew, University of York, American Anthropologist, September 1992.

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“Mysore, India, might seem an unlikely location for a conference about a sociologist who was always uncertain about generalising his ideas beyond the familiar milieu of Anglo-American society. Nevertheless, as this volume attests, the meeting held at the Central Institute of Indian Languages in December 1987 and attended by a number of Indian and North American scholars gave rise to much valuable discussion about the nature and limits of Goffman’s. The book aims to ‘expand the scope of the theoretical views and empirical research Erving Goffman contributed to the social sciences’ in a critical but constructive way. Goffman was always clear that his ideas were to be regarded as provisional and exploratory in character, as tools which might prove useful in the construction of more rigorous sociological descriptions and explanations. The spirit of Goffman’s work is thus aptly reflected in this book’s aims and title.”

Greg Smith, University of Salford, Sociology, November 1992.

 

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“Who’s Goffman? About halfway through Beyond Goffman I began to imagine an experiment. What if we blanked out Goffman’s name and asked a non-sociologist reader how many different theorists the articles describe. Several writers in Beyond Goffman stress that Goffman the self is a team. There is a team resemblance to the various instigation of all these articles, but a single sociologist – impossible.

While Goffman was alive I took his singularity for granted. As I read Beyond Goffman the person I thought I knew returned even as he faded. I mean this as praise for the book. The collected articles underscore that behind every appearance is disappearance, and the sociology of self-presentation must ultimately rest on a sustained act of concealment.”

Arthur W. Frank, University of Calgary, Canadian Journal of Sociology, December 1997.

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