July 31, 2017

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, July 2017

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste. Also, I have no qualifications to opine on 19th century America, criminology, the history of science, cultural evolution, or linguistics.

Wallace Stegner, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West
I came to this knowing absolutely nothing about Powell, and found myself fascinated.
Angela Nagle, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right
This is interesting, but very uneven. She's strongest when she attacks the idea that transgression and outrageousness, as an aesthetic or a style, has any affinity with what could sensibly be called progressive values. This was always a silly, historically ill-informed idea (Exhibit A: the Futurists), and scholars who applied the cliche to online provocateurs were particularly ill-advised. Transgression, I'd suggest, is just a tactic, with little moral or political valence as such. (It's obviously no good for an actual establishment, but reactionaries can use it just fine.) Nagle is also good at describing the tone, and to some degree the self-image, of the weirder and more pathetic right-wing online communities, especially the "self-organized corps of women-hating men".
Finally, I enjoyed the re-counting of on-line tempests, but then I remember Usenet flamewars from when I was 16. I am unpersuaded that these will be of enduring historical importance.
Against this, Nagle is much too upset by those who are close to her politically, but a bit precious and/or egging each other on into silliness. I sympathize, because I too am prone to being exasperated by excesses which really merit no more than an eye-roll, yet I feel like this shared weakness of ours leads her to errors of proportion. I mean "proportion" pretty literally: I found her reproduction of an online list of supposed genders hilarious, and sad, and a sign that "social construction" really needs to be better taught, but it didn't merit two pages in a 120-page book.
The fundamental weakness, though, is that Nagle never unpacks the process by which a young man goes from "I want to play video games where I get to shoot things and ogle breasts, without being told to feel bad about it" to walking around in Nazi regalia. Nagle is a good enough writer that I suspect she can illuminate this transition, but I don't think she really has, yet.
(She does, however, reinforce my feeling that we'd all be better off if Twitter just disappeared overnight.)
--- File under "disappointing, but not fatal, if true".
Jill Leovy, Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America
This is partly a journalistic true-crime book about murders in South Central Los Angeles, and the homicide detectives involved. It uses these as examples to illuminate a theory about why such areas retain such levels of violence. This is a vicious-cycle theory about state failure.
Weber defined the state as the organization claiming a monopoly on the use of force within a given territory; ibn Khaldun, as the institution whose goal is to suppress all injustices such as it does not itself commit. Either way, when there is an effective state, and people are injured --- especially, when they are killed --- their kith and kin can turn to the state for redress against the offenders. Even more, they can expect the state to offer them redress. Let this start to break down for any reason, however, and their desire for retribution will not go away. (Turning the other cheek is not a selectively-favored response.) They will retaliate on their own, outside of the state and its legal system. This of course increases the level of violence, not least because those retaliated against will be very strongly inclined to respond in kind. Increasing the level of violence will in turn make it harder for the state to deal with any of it, so that relying on the state for redress becomes even less appealing or reasonable. People in the community will of course organize for mutual aid (whether by patrilineal clan, as in the Old Country, or by neighborhood-based street gang, as in LA, is secondary), but in many ways this only exacerbates the problem (if a Ghilzai/Blood gets shot by a Momand/Crip, that makes any Momand/Crip fair game for retaliation, which makes any Ghlizai/Blood a target for counter-retaliation...). It also means that the community is flooded with young men who reasonably primed to defend themselves against any slight, real or imagined, against their honor ("rep") with violence. (Young people, especially young men, are also, constitutionally, prone to bad judgment, but I think this is a secondary effect.) Everyone, of course, is closely tied to someone who has flagrantly broken the state's law. The end result is a situation of very high endemic levels of violence, where everyone knows who did what to whom, but nobody is willing to go to the police.
(The formal sociological version of this account is basically Papachristos's "Murder by Structure"; Leovy cites a lot of academic work on crime, but not, I believe, that particular paper.)
The way to break out of this, says Leovy, is to pour resources into solving homicides. Shows of force, occupations, and generally coming down on the community like a ton of bricks doesn't actually solve the problem. Convincing people that they can count on the state for redress, on the other hand, does break the cycle of retaliation and endemic violence. It re-establishes the state as an effective force in the community*.
I have discussed all this in a rather abstract, intellectual, model-building way. In part that's because that's how I prefer to deal with the world. But it's also because Leovy's way of presenting the same ideas is painfully vivid and emotionally wrenching. There are sections of the book --- some of its finest writing --- that I just couldn't bear to re-read for the sake of writing this note. I urge my readers to subject themselves to it nonetheless.
*: As a matter of pure theory, I think Leovy dismisses blanket repression too easily. The kinds of police shows-of-force she documents are certainly ineffective and alienating. But they're ineffective because they are too localized and too plainly temporary. Really awful but permanent and wide-spread police repression might well work, in the sense of suppressing violence. But neither she nor I would actually want that for our fellow Americans, and anyway the tax-payers are too cheap to pay what it would cost. ^
David Wootton, The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution
The best single book on the scientific revolution I have ever seen. It fully absorbs those parts of the social studies of science since the 1970s which are sound, including the way seemingly fundamental concepts ("facts", "evidence", "hypotheses", "theories", "discoveries") are not universal and have a history. But it never loses sight of the fact that modern science is not just any novelty, but also a unique enterprise of building reliable, powerful knowledge which becomes increasingly reliable and powerful. (There are also some entirely justified attacks on prominent works of sociology of science as very bad history.) I do not think it is perfect (*), but it is magnificent and compelling.
(Some long-time readers will, I know, be pleased by the emphasis Wootton puts on the European discovery of the Americas as legitimating the whole notion of "discovery" and of going beyond ancient knowledge.)
ObLinkage: Wooton provides a summary of some key parts of his argument in Nature 550 (2017): 454--455, keyed to the anniversary of Luther's 95 theses.
*: Wootton is very sound on the importance of "the printing press as an agent of change" (explicitly acknowledging Eisenstein), specifically the way printing facilitated establishing reliable facts, surveying evidence, the emergence of a culture of discovery, etc. But he never really wrestles with why China, which invented printing, and indeed all of the other key technologies of early modern Europe, including the magnetic compass, did not develop comparable concepts and institutions. (He is suitably aware, on the basis of Needham, of Chinese technological prowess.) ^
Olivier Morin, How Traditions Live and Die
This is one of the best books I've read about cultural evolution in many years. It focuses, obviously, on "traditions", defined (p. 37) as "anything that is widely distributed in a population", with the distribution being "due to a diffusion process".
The central move here, which I think is correct and deeply insightful, is to shift the focus away from the problem of transmission (getting the tradition to be passed on faithfully many times) to that of attraction (getting the tradition to be something which people want to pass on, and to receive, in the first place). As Morin says, if something manages to be attractive, the problem of faithfulness is much less severe, because it will then get many opportunities for transmission, and there is less need for each one to be a faithful copying process. This is good because, as Morin reviews, all our evidence is that people are not great at faithful copying; more precisely, each individual attempt at transmission is pretty noisy and fallible*. So the key issue is what makes a potentially-transmissible item attractive.
As to what makes for attractiveness, however, I have to admit that I found Morin frustratingly vague. I suspect that in large part this is because it will be highly context-specific. (Techniques for smoking brisket, however delicious, will spread poorly among vegans.) I agree with his hope that looking at what transmissions manage to spread across many contexts may tell us about what sorts of things almost everyone finds attractive, but it may also just tell us about what sorts of cultural items are very ambiguous and multivalent! His related speculations about human evolution seem even more vague.
These are minor quibbles. Beyond the main conceptual moves, the book has a wealth of fascinating facts and insightful discussions of important topics. (I cannot really do justice to the treatment of children's games.) It follows, in many ways, the agenda laid out by Dan Sperber's superb Explaining Culture, which is no coincidence because Sperber was Morin's Ph.D. adviser. But it genuinely advances that agenda in important ways. As I said, this is essential reading for anyone interested in cultural evolution.
*: The criticism of empirical studies of social contagion (especially pp. 110--115) is, if anything, too kind to them. Morin gives reasons to think these studies are biased or inaccurate; in fact, most of the ones he discusses are simply un-identified, and tell us nothing at all. But I have a Thing about this. ^
Charles Stross, The Delirium Brief
Mind candy, horror/spy comedy division. (Despite the fact that the events depicted here are, objectively, immensely worse than in the immediately previous "Bob" book in the series, I found this one vastly more enjoyable, which says something about the relatively palatability of marital dysfunction and looming apocalypse by trans-dimensional parasites for a divorced middle-aged man.)
Robert Jackson Bennett, City of Miracles
Mind candy fantasy: a fitting, thrilling conclusion to the trilogy.
John McWhorter, The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language
Popular linguistics, about recent attempts to revive the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. As the sub-title suggests, McWhorter isn't having it. As is usual with popular-book sub-titles, his actual position is a bit more nuanced. McWhorter admits there is some evidence that differences in language lead to statistically-detectable, but small and subtle, differences in perception, and perhaps even behavior. (Whether such effects will survive the replication crisis is outside his scope.) Anything beyond this, though, McWhorter subjects to a scorched-earth assault. As a connoisseur of such attacks, I enjoyed it, and found it persuasive, but it does also fit my prejudices, and I would be very interested to read a good counter-attack.
ObLinkage: A very brief presentation by McWhorter of his main arguments.

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; The Beloved Republic; Writing for Antiquity; The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Commit a Social Science The Great Transformation; The Progressive Forces; The Running-Dogs of Reaction; Linkage;

Posted at July 31, 2017 23:59 | permanent link

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