September 30, 2018

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, September 2018

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste. I also have no qualifications to discuss geography, the alt-right, 19th century American history, political philosophy, or the life and works of Joseph Conrad.

Gilbert Seldes, The Stammering Century
A sympathetic, at times even loving, account of selected 19th century American cranks, and crank movements, tracing them all back to Jonathan Edwards, both in the inflection he gave to Calvinism, and his cultivating outbreaks of enthusiasm. Strongly recommended to those interested in weird Americana, and, of course, psychoceramics.
Stanley Fish, Save the World on Your Own Time
A plea to university faculty to teach their subject matter, and just teach their subject matter, rather than use our teaching to try to "save the world". I am very sympathetic, but I don't think Fish is really fair to some fairly obvious counter-arguments:
  • Sometimes, the consensus of a discipline on a key subject matter runs smack in to a current political or cultural controversy --- e.g., evolutionary biology or climatology. To refuse to engage that is to fail in teaching our disciplines. To (as Fish suggests) "academicize" the point by studying the controversy itself fails to convey crucial points of our disciplines. (And anyway biologists and climatologists aren't sociologists or historians, and would be operating outside their domain of expertise.)
  • We may have options available to us in our teaching which are equally good from a disciplinary standpoint, but carry very different connotations. If I am teaching time series analysis, from a purely statistical viewpoint it doesn't matter whether I draw my examples from finance or from environmental toxicology, but it'd be (faux) naive to pretend that this choice wouldn't carry connotations to the students.
    Of course, what my students would make of those connotations is another matter. One of Fish's sounder points is that the way our students understand our lessons, especially the subtler aspects of them, is so far beyond our control, and so idiosyncratic from student to student, that it's futile to aim at changing their attitudes in the way some of us profess to do. (Fish didn't originate the line about "how am I supposed to indoctrinate my students when I can't even make them do the reading?", but I'm pretty sure he'd endorse it.) I might please myself by using environmental examples in my time-series class, and I might even fulfill a legitimate pedagogical purpose of showing the students something about the range of applicability of the methods, but I shouldn't fool myself that I am raising their consciousness.
  • At least since the medieval universities were founded to train professionals in medicine, law and theology, higher education has always had practical aims. American higher education was certainly never intended as the self-justifying pursuit of inutility which Fish longs for. So why not ask "useful for what?" (Cf.)
Now, this is a short book, and one can forgive a pamphlet for not being a comprehensive treatise, and in particular for not considering all possible ramifications and objections. I become less forgiving, however, when a short book has a lot of space given over to, among other things,
  • An account of what sounds like its author's nervous breakdown after he gave up being a dean;
  • A loving description of the author's frankly-eccentric approach to teaching composition and syntax by making his students invent an artificial language (not much burdened by knowledge of linguistics)
  • A disquisition on how, because Milton wrote poems, he couldn't also have been trying to make political or theological points in his poetry, because (you guessed it) poetry is a self-referential, self-justifying activity [*].
and so on.
I feel like Fish probably has it in him to write a better-proportioned book on these themes, which engaged better with objections; I'd be interested to read it.
*: This is a frankly astonishing argument from someone of Fish's obvious erudition; I can't decide whether it's more rhetorically or historically ill-informed. If poetry can be used to write astronomy textbooks, it can be used to score theological points.
Maya Jasanoff, The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World
Part biography of Conrad, part exposition of his most important novels, part an effort to portray him as a prophet of a newly-globalizing world, and so connect him to our own time. I think it really works quite well on all fronts.
Daniel Dorling, Mark Newman and Anna Barford, The Atlas of the Real World: Mapping the Way We Live
A collection of interesting (if not always very uplifting) cartograms. Since Mark is a friend and collaborator, and once upon a time we wrote something with using his cartogram-making technique, I won't pretend to objectivity, but I will say this is fascinating and I wish it could be perpetually updated. (Posted now because of my policy / compulsion of not recommending books until I've read them cover to cover.)
(I am, however, puzzled by the international-trade cartograms that use net exports or imports by industry; this seems very misleading when a lot of countries both export and import substantially in the same category.)
Mike Wendling, Alt-Right: From 4Chan to the White House
No great revelations, but a decent, straightforward journalistic account of the movement, or rather collection of more-or-less related and overlapping movements and tendencies, and some of the principle ideologues/grifters.
Owing the vagaries of publication, this basically ends with Charlottesville, and with the conclusion that the movement is on its way to implosion. I suspect this is right for whatever attempt there was at a coherent movement of (sort-of) younger, (pseudo-) sophisticated people. As events since then have amply shown, however, there is no shortage online of disorganized people spread somewhere on a spectrum from paranoia to frothing hatred, and encouraging each other to ever more elaborate delusions.
(Written before one of those fuckheads shot up my neighborhood and killed someone I cared about.)
Amy Gutmann, Identity in Democracy
This is calm and sensible, and a bit depressing to still be discussing a decade and a half later, when a lot of the topical examples are very dated. Curiously, from my point of view, the book takes which identities are politically relevant as given, rather than as endogenous to the political-cultural process.

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Kith and Kin; Learned Folly; The Running-Dogs of Reaction; The Progressive Forces; The Commonwealth of Letters; Commit a Social Science; Writing for Antiquity; The Beloved Republic; Psychoceramica; Philosophy

Posted at September 30, 2018 23:59 | permanent link

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