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Four books January 2018

Starting this year, I will occasionally post lightly commented lists of books I’m currently reading. My tendency is to occupy myself with nonfiction, erring on the side of theory, anthropology, philosophy, politics. For those who got to know me (or my blog) via work, these interests could be slightly disorienting. I have come to believe, however, that my consulting practice is definitely informed by all of this. The better I understand how the social world works, the better I seem to become at changing it (the kind of consulting I do is all about changing social worlds).

This is also why I read very few “business” books: because I don’t think I’ve ever actually learned anything from one. Instead of teaching us about business, they try to enrol us in beliefs to make us less skeptical and more efficient. Which—I suppose—works for certain purposes. But my work requires me to have critical purchase over what I’m being told, and for that I prefer the kinds of things I usually read.

I don’t claim to have read all of these cover-to-cover. My office is in a constant state of tsundoku. I am mostly comfortable with this, particularly after realizing that the guilt I feel when looking at piles of unread books is rooted in work ethic precepts we would all do well to let go. Our aspirations inform us, too, and unread books represent the potential of what we could know next. Perhaps the only real question here is about how, or whether, unread books should be displayed as part of one’s decor, a point of representational ethics.

Feedback (and reading suggestions) always welcome.

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Grand Hotel Abyss

Jeffries, Stuart. Grand Hotel Abyss. The Lives of the Frankfurt School.
London & New York: Verso Books, 2016

In a way, the thinkers associated with the Frankfurt School are always current. Formed in the 1920s, the independent Institute for Social Research drew into its orbit such luminaries as Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse. Collectively, they are known to have founded “critical theory” (in the original sense of the term). As Marxist social researchers, these writers were interested in figuring out why Marx’s proposed revolution had failed to “happen” in the capitalist “West.” Later, they also turned their interest to fascism and totalitarianism (and their connection to capitalism). All were particularly thoughtful, erudite, broadly educated and intimidatingly productive. This sort of “intellectual biography” pulls it all together into an easily digestible format, weaving just enough biographical tidbits together with the theory to give it context and colour. One cannot escape the sense that the Frankfurt School’s work has tremendously gained in contemporary relevance post Trump election. (At the risk of sounding like a terrible stickler, I need to mention that this has quite a few copy-editing problems, both spelling and grammar, throughout. Noticing this more and more, particularly with British publishers.)

anderson private government cover

Anderson, Elizabeth. Private Government. How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It)
Princeton & Oxford: Princeton Univ. Press, 2017

An important book. Anderson’s 2015 Tanner Lectures discuss how we came to have the current authoritarian form of “private government” over employees in corporations. She traces the history of “free trade” and free contracting—now commonly understood as conservative touchstones—to egalitarian interests in the 17th century. Free trade, then, was originally seen as a way out of various forms of government (monarchs, aristocrats, landowners, bishops, male heads of household), a pathway to a more equal society. The imagined ideal was that all citizens would be “freelancers,” that everyone would work for themselves and freely trade with one another. The Industrial Revolution changed this path fundamentally, as the concentration of capital coupled with the demand for vast numbers of low-skilled workers resulted in conditions closer to what we still recognize today. Yet the libertarian story never changed: we are still led to believe that any employee is freely contracting for her labour and could leave employment anytime. This free market ideology masks all kinds of abuses, from union-busting to firing employees at will for their political beliefs (or using their work email for family matters). Anderson’s book helps us see this clearly and outlines potential remedies. I’d recommend this to all employees (and managers). (The text of the lectures themselves is available for free from the Tanner archive. The book also contains commentaries and responses to commentaries.)

lissa a story about medical promise

Hamdy, Sherine and Coleman Nye. Lissa. A Story About Medical Promise, Friendship, and Revolution.
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017

A noble and interesting experiment. Incubated by the University of Toronto Press, this is the first in a planned series of graphical ethnofictions, collaboratively produced by anthropologists and graphic designers who specialize in cartoons. Ethnofiction is a sub-form of ethnography that “tells a story” based on actual fieldwork but using composite characters and fictionalized events. Lissa is about two young women—one American, one Egyptian—who grapple with making medical decisions of various kinds while sustaining an intercontinental childhood friendship. In addition, much of it is set in Egypt during the 2011 revolution. The book comes with various commentaries, a teaching guide and a commented reading list. I did find the interview-style commentary with the authors key to making sense of it. And there’s the rub: as ethnofiction, it evokes or thematizes something but offers little analysis or interpretation. I can see that there are certain double-page spreads that attempt a kind of symbolic interpretive work by linking images, but it feels a little as if the “other half” of ethnography’s work has gone missing. That said, I see its use for undergrad teaching, particularly in conjunction with the discussion guide, and coupled with readings from the commented list. Whether you get excited about something like this depends on how you feel about all the hand-wringing around “relevance” and popularizing scholarship.

lepselter resonance of unseen things

Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016
Open access PDF available.

What are the roots of the current moment’s “fake news,” the claiming of facts by partisan factions? Different forms of conspiracy beliefs and uncanny resonances have permeated American history since colonization. Lepselter’s smart and beautifully written book investigates UFOs and alien abduction, connecting it to broader meta-narrative patterns of capture and release which already occur in colonial times. Alternative knowledges (such as those of UFOs and alien abduction) are often constructed in the manner of apophenia, the tendency to see connections between phenomena that aren’t otherwise related. The current acceleration of such alternative knowledges—and their increasing mainstreaming—may be related to an intensification of capitalism’s polarizations (Lepselter writes of “the problems and tragedies … the spirals of falling through middle-class lives into hardship and crises,” 31). The book is both ethnographically rigorous (how can we take alternative knowledges and experts seriously, in “our own” society?) and an apt meditation in/on the poetics of these kinds of discourses. I think it is now more important than when the fieldwork was conducted (90s) and when it was published (2016). There are others who grapple with similar questions (such as Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland), but Lepselter grounds her analysis firmly in both vectors of American modernity, colonization and capitalism, avoiding the common erasure implied by discussing only one.

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