July 31, 2021

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, July 2021

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste, and no qualifications to opine on culture-bound syndromes and contagious hysterias, the history and economics of socialist planning, economic inequality, or Islamic theology.

Elaine Showalter, Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture (Columbia University Press, 1997)
Showalter's theory is, roughly, as follows. Modern life produces lots of seriously unhappy, even traumatized, people. Some, at least, of those people are apt act out their unhappiness in various bodily symptoms and behaviors. This acting out is more or less unconscious, usually more rather than less. There is a certain amount of random flailing around (as it were) when it comes to these symptoms, but people tend to be attracted to patterns of behavior which have some sort of authoritative imprimatur among those around them as reflecting real distress. There is thus a symbiosis between clinicians who recognize syndromes-of-distress and patients who enact those syndromes. Showalter calls the syndromes forms of "hysteria", and the associated narratives "hystories". To really make the symbiosis work, however, one needs a mass medium to widely disseminate the scripts or schemata for the syndrome, perhaps as elements in popular fiction.
Showalter applies this theory to the original "classical hysteria" of Charcot et al. in the late 1800s, and, in the 1980s and 1990s when she was writing, to alien abduction, chronic fatigue syndrome, Satanic ritual abuse, recovered memory, Gulf War syndrome, and multiple personality disorder. The late-20th-century cases are distinguished from the late-19th-century ones by the fact that they all involve conspiracy theories; Showalter is very firm, and correct, about this development, but doesn't really try to explain it. (It's not as though the 19th century had any shortage of conspiracy theories, and it'd need little more than search-and-replace to turn The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk into a tale of Satanic ritual abuse.) I want to single out the chapters on recovered memory, multiple personality disorder, Satanic ritual abuse and alien abduction for how carefully, and convincingly, Showalter shows they follow her model.
A quarter-century later, some of these syndromes have all but vanished, but there's no shortage of replacements. (Listing them is left as an exercise for the reader.) Why we should be so productive of "hystories" is not really something Showalter adequately explains, beyond gesturing at millennial anxiety and/or modern telecommunications.
At this point I'd like to make one complaint, two anthropological connections, and one mathematical aside.
  • Showalter does not give enough weight to the possibility that something which looks like a hysteria with physical symptoms might in fact be a conventional illness. (That is, she doesn't consider how to distinguish social from biological contagion*.) I think in many ways this would have been a much stronger book if it had had a chapter on Lyme disease (which we now know is a bacterial illness transmitted by ticks) and the supposed chronic Lyme disease (which fits Showalter's ideas to a T). It wouldn't surprise me if some of the people who suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome are in fact dealing with currently-unrecognized organic conditions; it would surprise me very much if alien abductees were. (Cf. this contemporary review from Carol Tavris.)
  • A lot of Showalter's ideas are close to those put forward by the anthropologist I. M. Lewis in Ecstatic Religion: A Study of Shamanism and Spirit Possession (first ed. 1971). What might be distinctly modern about Showalter's syndromes, as opposed to Lewis's, is the role of mass media in their spread and institutionalization.
  • Dan Sperber would have a field day with this. In particular, Showalter's ideas seem extremely compatible with Sperber's about how the "epidemiology of representations" needs to combine transmission and "attraction".
  • I'm tempted to model the growth of "hystories" using the classic Simon (1955) process: with some probability each unhappy person spawns a new form of hysteria, otherwise they attach themselves to an existing one with a probability proportional to its current size. (That is, preferential attachment to hysterias.) This will, of course, lead to a heavy-tailed distribution of hysterias. The flaw here is that this model wouldn't explain the disappearance of forms of hysteria; there might need to be some sort of recency effect.
I was alerted to this book, but put off from reading it, by a contemporary review in Nature; it now seems to me that the reviewer was unfair about the quality of Showalter's writing. (Perhaps my taste has been degraded by a quarter century of reading academic prose.) There are ways in which I'd re-write this book (it's still too Freudian, and in places too cutesy [e.g., the coinage "hystories" itself]), and, inevitably, parts are dated. I would really like to read Showalter giving the same treatment to the last quarter century, but, given her experiences after publishing this, I understand why she'd decline, to the public's loss. I urge the book on any reader with a serious interest in social contagion, or in the weirder reaches of modern culture.
*: My former student Dena Asta wrote did some nice research, back in 2012--2013, based on the idea that a social contagion will spread through "communities" or "modules" defined by the social network, while a biological contagion will need physical proximity. To the extent that network modularity and geographic propinquity cut across each other, we can get some handle on what form of contagion we're dealing with, assuming it's contagion at all. This, however, is taking us very far from Showalter's concerns.
Michael Ellman, Socialist Planning (3rd edition, 2014)
This is a very complete revision of a book whose first (1979) edition I reviewed earlier. The revision brings the story up to the early 2010s (in the case of China), and makes extensive use of sources and studies which have only become available since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Geographically, coverage remains focused on the Soviet Union, but there are also extensive discussions of the Chinese experience, and a great deal more than I remember from the first edition about Yugoslavia, Poland, Hungary, and East Germany. Other eastern-European countries and Vietnam are mentioned sporadically, Cuba even less often, North Korea just a few times in passing. There is extensive information about how plans were drawn up, how the authorities attempted to implement them, what actually happened instead, etc. Coverage of the military sector, and the way preparation for another WWII-style conflict influenced every aspect of Soviet economic planning, is drastically expanded. (According to Ellman, much of the output of the aluminum and fertilizer industries was simply wasted year after year, because factories ran at levels suitable for producing vast numbers of warplanes and munitions, not actual needs.) The general tone is of trying to describe, and evaluate, a phenomenon which has passed and will never recur. To sum up Ellman's judgment: socialist planning was an attempt at modernization from above, driven by the imperative of being militarily competitive with industrialized European powers. In that goal, it succeeded, at least up through the 1950s. As a fulfillment of the ethical aims of socialism, it failed and was doomed to fail.
I find it hard to imagine that a better overview of socialist planning, as it actually existed, will be available any time soon.
Michele Alacevich and Anna Soci, Inequality: A Short History [JSTOR]
This isn't so much a history of inequality as of economists' ideas about inequality. Indeed, much of it takes the form of rehashing famous recent work. (E.g., chapter 4, "Inequality and Globalization", is largely about Branko Milanovic's Global Inequality. [It's a good book.]) They do make the interesting point that both classical and neo-classical economics focused on the distribution of income across factors of production, rather than the distribution of income (or wealth) across persons or households. But the point is somewhat undercut by the fact that the statistical study of income and wealth distributions owes so much to Pareto, who was also one of the founders of neo-classical economics! I found some of the history in ch. 3, "The Statistical Drift of Inequality Studies", to be interesting, though I think a bit unfair to Pareto (regular readers will understand what such a statement costs me). I also found Alacevich and Soci's repeated slagging on economists for merely doing empirical studies of income distribution a bit unfortunate --- surely before coming up with a theoretical explanation, it's important to know what the phenomena to be explained actually are!
Over-all, if you have read any two of Milanovic, Piketty and Bartels, you will not find much new here. I might assign some of the history-of-statistics portions in my class.
Karin Slaughter, The Last Widow and The Silent Wife
Mind candy, mystery/thriller division. Umpteenth volumes in Slaughter's long-running series, which I enjoy very much. The Last Widow is a 2019 publication which involves (not to spoil anything) biological terrorism, the CDC, and a right-wing attack on a seat of government. Looking back from mid-2021, therefore, I am very relieved that The Silent Wife is merely about personal betrayal and serial killing. Both are very well-written and enjoyable, if full of squicky parts.
(I think it is, however, a defect in construction that the dramatic, newsworthy, and emotionally-scarring events of Last Widow are basically not mentioned in Silent Wife, despite its taking place a mere six weeks later. It's also atypical of Slaughter, since one of the things I enjoy about her series is that there are consequences.)
John Renard (ed.), Islamic Theological Themes: A Primary Source Reader
Does what it says. I'm impressed by the range of texts --- ideologically, geographically, chronologically --- but utterly incompetent to evaluate it.
S. A. Chakraborty, The Kingdom of Copper
Mind candy fantasy: sequel to City of Brass. I found the continuing story enjoyable, but the language is, to borrow a phrase from Le Guin, very much that of Poughkeepsie rather than Elfland, despite being almost entirely set in Elfland (or, more precisely, Jinnistan). Still, I immediately got the sequel after finishing this.
Anna Lee Huber, A Wicked Conceit
Mind candy mystery. I think it's probably just as good as the earlier books, but that series fatigue has set in for me after nine volumes. They will, however, loose little from being read out of order.

Update, 28 August 2021: Fixed an editing fragment that turned a sentence about Alacevich and Soci into mush.

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Islam and Islamic Civilization; Writing for Antiquity; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime; The Dismal Science; The Progressive Forces; Psychoceramica; Minds, Brains, and Neurons; Actually, "Dr. Internet" Is the Name of the Monster's Creator

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