January 31, 2022

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, January 2022

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste, and no qualifications to opine on the history and geopolitical context of Antarctic exploration, the social structure of medieval China, or philosophy of any kind.

Berlin Station
For reasons I will not elaborate on, I binge-watched the entirety of these two spy drama series over a period of about eight weeks. (My viewing-partner needed a lot of distraction, and had lived in both Berlin and London.) Both had ripped-from-the-headline plots and some good acting [*], including some overlapping cast. Over-all, I liked Berlin Station better, since it had more ambitious and more coherent plots, though there was a development late in the third and final season which at last made me get why people write "fix it" fanfic. (Yes, I went looking and found that people had indeed written the relevant fixit fics. Yes, I read them. No, I will not link to them.) There is a dissertation to be written about the absurdity of many of the plots in MI-5 (the economics alone -- oy vey). One nice question to investigate in such a dissertation would be whether those hare-brained notions arise from the writers' sincere ideas about how the world works, the audience's ideas about the world, the writers' ideas of the audience's ideas about the world, or the writers' ideas of what the audience will tolerate in escapist entertainment. §
*: Except for the painful imitations of American accents in MI-5.
Adrian Howkins, Frozen Empires: An Environmental History of the Antarctic Peninsula
A solid history of political conflicts over the Antarctic Peninsula between the British Empire, Argentina, Chile, the US and the Soviet Union, with other parties showing up as bit players. Howkins makes a big deal out of a contrast between the imperial powers' claiming "environmental authority", in the sense of producing universally-valid and useful scientific knowledge about the environment, and the "environmental nationalism" of Argentina and Chile, claiming a more intimate, specific and un-generalizable connection to Antarctica and its environment. (I'd like to read some of the literary works Howkins references, but lack the Spanish.) In this view, the Antarctic Treaty, which suspends sovereignty claims over the continent but limits influence to countries engaged in serious scientific research, constitutes a full, apparently final, victory of environmental authority over environmental nationalism. The actual Antarctic environment and its history is thus not in the foreground. It appears more by way of an obstacle to (e.g.) Chile trying to actually have a naval or administrative presence on the Peninsula, or whaling becoming unimportant.
While I began this very skeptical that there was anything interesting to say about imperialism in the only part of the world where there wasn't anyone to imperialize over, by the end Howkins had me convinced this was, in fact, a real part of the history of Antarctica. (That Argentine and Chilean nationalists were an alternative to imperial environmental authority, as opposed to just wanting to be the authoritative imperialists themselves --- there I was less persuaded.) §
Nicolas Tackett, The Destruction of the Medieval Chinese Aristocracy
This is awesome: it's a social network study of office-holding elite of the later Tang dynasty (after the An Lushan rebellion*), based on funerary inscriptions that gave extensive biographical and genealogical details. Archaeologists have dug up thousands of these, along with others recorded by epigraphers; in some cases these can be connected to biographies in the official dynastic histories (and the two sources usually agree). By assembling a database of these inscriptions, Tackett is able to, in turn, construct a social network of the Tang elite --- rich families that held high office, for many generations on end, in many cases over multiple dynasties. Tackett documents their persistence in office, their peregrinations around the empire, their residences in or between the two capital cities of Chang-an and Luoyang, and their intermarriages and ties of patronage. (Interestingly, the marriage network seems to show two modules or blocks**, one centered on the imperial family. I would have expected more; this would be worth investigating with good community-discovery methods.)
Tackett's argument, convincing to this non-expert, is that this elite was incredibly successful at maintaining their position, despite all the challenges put in their way --- not just An Lushan, but the rise of more-or-less recognized hereditary warlords in the northeast, and the examination system. (My fellow Eisensteinians will perk up when Tackett discusses the role of family manuscript libraries in preparing for competitive examinations in a pre-print society.) In this account, this elite was perfectly set to continue perpetuating itself for generations to come, until the Huang Chao rebellion captured and wrecked the capital cities in 880--881, and in doing so just flat-out killed an immense proportion of those elites. This was the destruction of the title, and more or less the close of Tackett's story.
Now obviously I am not any kind of expert on medieval China, and so it would be presumptuous of me to judge whether Tackett has fairly encompassed all the relevant evidence, and so render a judgment on his account of both the continued pre-eminence of this elite, and its extinction. But it makes a great deal of sense, and I really want to get my hands on the data. I'd recommend it for anyone interested in historical social networks, especially recovering social networks from text, at least if they have basic familiarity with the outlines of pre-modern Chinese history. §
*: While it's tangential to his point, Tackett cannot resist pointing out that Steven Pinker, in describing the An Lushan rebellion as proportionally the worst disaster in human history, relied on a source which obviously confused a decline in the Tang state's ability to enumerate (and so tax and conscript) its subjects with an actual death toll.
**: Tackett says "cliques", but clearly doesn't mean the word in its graph-theoretic sense.
Ernest Gellner, The Devil in Modern Philosophy
1974 essay collection by one of my gurus; I first read it in 1997 when I'd just discovered Gellner and was tearing through everything of his I could find, and re-read it now because the CMU library got electronic access. The essays here range in time from the 1950s, when Gellner was attacking Wittgenstein and "ordinary language" philosophy, through the early 1970s. So the oldest layer here consists of companion pieces to Words and Things, while the most recent are studies for Legitimation of Belief. On re-reading, what I found the most interesting was that top-most layer. I would particularly single out the study of French 18th century materialism, as exemplified by d'Holbach's System of Nature, and the final essay "On Chomsky". Gellner's point in the latter is that what made Chomsky truly revolutionary was his insistence that ordinary human "lifeworld" competences require explanation, and that real explanations must be impersonal, mechanistic, structural. In Gellner's rendition, Chomsky's real objection to behaviorism wasn't that it was inhuman, but that only pretended to give mechanistic explanations. (I think this is right.)
I can't recommend this to anyone who isn't already deeply into Gellner, but I do want to take the occasion to plug Legitimation of Belief, which is terrific. §
Susanna Clarke, Piranesi
This is radically different from Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, but still amazing. Having carefully preserved myself from spoilers, there were only one or two points where I could see what was coming before the narrator did, and that was, for me, part of the charm, so I will keep my mouth shut about the marvelous transformations you will experience as you read this. You should read this. §

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Writing for Antiquity; Networks; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Philosophy

Posted at January 31, 2022 23:59 | permanent link

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