May 28, 2022

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, July 2019

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste, and no qualifications to say anything about the biography of Karl Marx, the psychology of religion, cultural criticism, the sociology of psychoanalysis, or even, strictly speaking, the history of statistical methods.

Ernest Mandel, The Formation of the Economic Thought of Karl Marx: 1843 to Capital
Mandel was a believer, so this is very much presented as the story of how Uncle Karl came to perceive The Truth, but it's readable and accurate so far as I can tell. Recommended if you have a special (or perverse) interest in this subject. §
William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience [Project Gutenberg e-text]
This is a truly remarkable, and deservedly classic, work, equally at home in psychology, philosophy, and sheer sympathetic human understanding. Even when I continue to think that many of the experiences James describes are just wrong, he makes it easier for me to appreciate why they exist. (This made it easier for me to get over the inevitable "What do you mean 'we', white man?" moments, when James discusses "oriental" religions, especially because he freely admits his information about them is very imperfect.)
One of James's concluding speculations is that just because many religious phenomena have their origins in the subconscious of the human mind, it doesn't mean that they don't also have an extra-human origin:
Let me then propose, as an hypothesis, that whatever it may be on its farther side, the "more" with which in religious experience we feel ourselves connected is on its hither side the subconscious continuation of our conscious life. Starting thus with a recognized psychological fact as our basis, we seem to preserve a contact with "science" which the ordinary theologian lacks. At the same time the theologian's contention that the religious man is moved by an external power is vindicated, for it is one of the peculiarities of invasions from the subconscious region to take on objective appearances, and to suggest to the Subject an external control.
As a matter of pure logic, it is hard to show this isn't true, and, decision-theoretically, James is within his rights to prioritize power over avoiding false positives. But it says something about a difference in --- temperaments? backgrounds? --- that James develops this hypothesis into a suggestion that maybe God interacts with us benevolently because that it "help[s] God in turn to be more effectively faithful to his own greater tasks?", whereas I immediately start thinking "Cthulhu" and "Cordyceps". (Update: or "cicada meth orgy fungus", to borrow a phrase.)
Anyway: it's a great book. §
Phoebe Maltz Bovy, The Perils of "Privilege": Why Injustice Can't Be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage
This came out a few years ago, to little acclaim and less impact. It is, I think, wiser than the vast majority of our conversation about the concept of "privilege", for or against.
The central point is not that there aren't some on-average advantages and disadvantages attached to ascriptive statuses. It's that making these on-average differences into sources of individualized guilt and shame, occasions for the examination of conscience, professions of repentance, "doing the work", etc. [*], does little to actually change the objectionable social arrangements. If anything, all this is demanding an individual and moralized response to a systemic, institutional issue. If you accept the diagnosis, it's simply at the wrong scale for a prescription, like suggesting that we deal with cholera in the water supply by installing filters in every house, only less effective. (Cf. David Auerbach.)
Indeed, to the extent that fluent privilege-talk becomes a requirement for participating in certain communities, or even in some spheres of public life, it also forms a barrier to such participation, one which will be higher for those without the education and the spare time to acquire that fluency and keep current. That is, mandatory privilege-talk helps entrench the privilege of certain kinds of cultural capital. A cynic, or a functionalist, might suspect that this is the purpose of such talk. I am not a functionalist, and moreover fail to see the feedback or selection mechanisms which would take the place of teleology here. --- I should be clear that Bovy points out the perverse consequence, but doesn't descend to cynicism or functionalism.
Beyond that all, Bovy has her own kind of moral individualism, which is to insist that people are much more than any of their ascriptive statuses, or even than the combination of all their ascriptive statuses, and that in the end the on-average differences between those categories tell us little about the individual. (Though she wouldn't put it this way, she's insisting that the within-group variance is as meaningful as, and perhaps larger than, the between-group variance.) This is of course a debatable moral commitment, but she presents it attractively, and anyway makes no attempt to hide it, or smuggle it in to definitions and premises. This in and of itself puts the book head and shoulders above most of the rest of the literature on these matters, and makes its neglect even more of a shame. §
*: One point which Bovy doesn't much emphasize here, but I think is true, is that the language and practices are very similar to those of certain kinds of religion, those centered on the individual conscience, and the consciousness of (original) sin, rather than the community of the faithful. How much of this is an inheritance from those sorts of Protestantism, how much an adaptation to a cultural environment in America deeply shaped by those Protestant traditions, how much an independent re-discovery of a certain way of being human, and how much merely in the eye of the beholder (as I've said before, we secular materialists love to accuse each other of being priests in disguise) --- these are all nice questions which I suspect are impossible to answer. Nonetheless, it's fascinating to watch aspects of the centuries-old Anglo-American tradition of the fire-and-brimstone revival meeting, like preaching until some sinners break down and tearfully confess their utter and inherent depravity, re-appear in the conference room.
Ernest Gellner, The Psychoanalytic Movement: The Cunning of Unreason
The best, because most sociological, anti-psychoanalytic book of the 1990s, re-read on the occasion of visiting Vienna on holiday. It holds up! §
Richard William Farebrother, Fitting Linear Relationships: A History of the Calculus of Observations 1750--1900 [doi:10.1007/978-1-4612-0545-6]
I suppose I should have appreciated before this that least squares comes out of trying to deal with over-determined systems of equations, i.e., more equations than unknowns, and specifically with the situation where we have more data points than parameters to be estimated. The Ancestors worked out an incredibly amount of the theory of linear models on that basis --- and then kept working it out, because work kept being forgotten, or being neglected, for decades at a time. The book is deliberately written for those already familiar with modern statistics, but it's remarkably interesting if you are, and have any historical curiosity. §
Spencer Ellsworth, Starfire: A Red Peace
Mind candy space opera: Suppose we took Star Wars, filed down the serial numbers, and were rather more realistic about how much a guerilla movement ruthless enough to succeed Rebel Alliance would respect human rights. Enjoyable enough that I will probably track down sequels. §
Bill Mantlo, Jackson Guice, Geof Isherwood and Colleen Doran, Swords of the Swashbucklers
Marc Guggenheim and Andrea Mutti, Swashbucklers: The Saga Continues
Mike Carey and Peter Gross, The Highest House
Patrick Kindlon and Maria Llovet, There's Nothing There
Caitlin Kittredge and Roberta Ingranata, Witchblade 1, 2, 3
Warren Ellis and Jason Howard, Cemetary Beach
Joe Harris and Megan Hutchinson, Rockstars: Nativity in Blacklight
Kurtis J. Wiebe, Roc Upchurch, Stejepan Sejic &c., Rat Queens, 1: Sass and Sorcery and 2: Far Reaching Tentacles of N'rygoth
Comic-book mind candy, assorted flavors. I most enjoyed The Highest House, and would very much like to read a sequel, but they're all fun. (Also, the writers and artists of the continuation of Swashbucklers deserve some kind of award for re-creating the style of the original, despite a lapse of decades. It's not their fault a continuation makes no sense...) §
Ellis Peters, The Leper of St. Giles, The Virgin in the Ice, The Sanctuary Sparrow, The Devil's Novice
Mind candy historical mysteries, re-visiting childhood favorites department. Cadfael may be too nice and enlightened to really be a plausible period character --- he sometimes seems like he'd be more at home in the mid-20th-century Church of England than the 12th century Benedictine Order --- but these are still extremely fun. §

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Philosophy; Minds, Brains, and Neurons; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime; Scientifiction and Fantastica; The Progressive Forces; Tales of Our Ancestors; Writing for Antiquity; Psychoceramics and Psychoceramica; Commit a Social Science; The Dismal Science; Enigmas of Chance

Posted at May 28, 2022 23:38 | permanent link

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