August 31, 2021

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

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste, and no qualifications to opine on criticism of cultural criticism, the sociology and demography of race in America, the political philosophy of doing something about climate change, or Afrocentric historiography.

Jen Williams, A Dark and Secret Place, a.k.a. Dog Rose Dirt
Mind candy mystery: in which a young journalist dealing with her deceased mother's effects discovers just how messed up parts of the 1970s counter-culture could get. This is the same Williams who wrote some excellent fantasy novels [1, 2], and some of the same skills for the uncanny are deployed here, but in the end everything is definitely this-worldly (I think). I enjoyed this a lot and hope it does well, but not so well that Williams gives up fantasy for mystery entirely. §
Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture a.k.a. The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can't be Jammed
A scorched-earth attack on the theory and practice of the counter-culture, especially as we knew it in the period from, let us say, the end of the Cold War to Occupy Wall Street. There are places where I want to quibble with them [*], but over-all my reaction is "preach! preach!".
ObLinkage 1: A paper by Heath from 2001, summarizing the argument (and making explicit both, on the one hand, Heath's debts to both Habermas and game theory**, and on the other the affinity between Heath and Potter and the1990s Baffler crew.)
ObLinkage 2: the authors interviewed on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the book. §
[*]: Simplifying, they attribute a lot of counter-cultural themes to a specific historical experience, viz., reacting against anything that seemed to lead to, or to resemble, Nazism. But (i) why should this remain persuasive for later generations? and (ii) lots of that reaction seems continuous with older patterns of disgust with mediocrity and conformity, which you can find in the 19th century easily enough. (I guess they might reply that the themes were old, but it took the 1940s to make them widely persuasive.) But their historical explanations are separate from their substantive criticisms.
[**]: More exactly, Habermas (partially) de-mystified through game theory. This fusion of actual (2nd wave) Frankfurt School critical theory and game theory is, I believe, unique to Heath, but I could wish it was more widespread among critical theorists.
Richard Alba, The Great Demographic Illusion: Majority, Minority, and the Expanding American Mainstream
This is a very detailed and thorough treatment of how the end of white America has been greatly, greatly exaggerated. One important contributor to this, in Alba's telling, was a decision on the part of the Census Bureau to produce summary statistics, and demographic projections, which count anyone with mixed white and non-white ancestry as non-white, i.e., to implement the old "one drop rule". (One of the ironies of Alba's account is that this was done to harmonize with decisions made by other parts of the federal government trying to enforce civil rights laws, and rather more defensibly on their part.) As Alba documents at some length, however, people of mixed white-Asian and white-Hispanic ancestry live and act very, very much like the children of unmixed non-Hispanic-white ancestry. In general, he shows, Asian and Hispanic groups are, in many ways, on a trajectory similar to those of immigrant groups from southern and eastern Europe in the 19th and early 20th century, being rapidly assimilated into a "mainstream" that is broadening its definition of what counts as, in some sense, fully American.
You will notice that this optimistic part of the story does not apply to black people or even to children of mixed black and white parentage.
I have only sketched a few of the highlights here. (If you want a few more details, the review in Dissent which lead me to the book is pretty good.) Alba is a careful if un-exciting writer who builds a detailed and persuasive case, and is good about admitting where the evidence is thin or ambiguous. If you're interested in these matters at all, I strongly recommend this. §
Horacio S. Wio, Path Integrals for Stochastic Processes: An Introduction
I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, it's a perfectly decent introduction, for physicists, to calculating path integrals for continuous-time homogeneous Markov processes, especially when driven by Gaussian white noise. But it leaves out some of the things I'm most interested in learning about (Doi-Peliti formalism, the extent to which diagrammatic methods work for any stochastic process). Worse: Wio, sensibly enough for his audience, writes with physicists' customary level of mathematical hand-waving, and I have absorbed enough of the very different standards prevailing in theoretical statistics that I actually found myself, much to my surprise and even unease, craving more careful statements, more explicit theorem-proof organization, and more detailed regularity conditions. Since my middle-aged disciplinary-identity crisis is not Wio's problem, nor likely to be a concern for other readers, I think I can recommend this one generally to those who remember how Poisson brackets work. §
Joseph Heath, Philosophical Foundations of Climate Change Policy
I have rarely read any philosopher who so perfectly articulated my own prejudices and settled convictions on an important subject. Whether this is a recommendation for anyone else, I couldn't begin to say. §
Clarence E. Walker, We Can't Go Home Again: An Argument About Afrocentrism
Part of this is a very convincing argument that the Afrocentric historians don't know what they're talking about, and are indeed just providing an inverted Eurocentrism and a mythical Africa. Another part of this is tracing the origins of this historiographic tradition, to understandable efforts at highlighting black "contributions" and "achievements". A third is an argument about whether Afrocentric history was politically valuable in the conditions of America in the 1980s and 1990s. The first two aspects of this book remain solid; the third is inevitably less interesting now. §

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Commit a Social Science The Beloved Republic; Philosophy; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime; Writing for Antiquity; Enigmas of Chance; Physics

Posted at August 31, 2021 23:59 | permanent link

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