February 28, 2022

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

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste, and no qualifications to opine on the history of Central Asia, the philosophy of science, the anthropology of New Guinea and/or cultural creativity, archaeology, Antarctic exploration, or the philosophy of Spinoza.

Adeeb Khalid, Central Asia: A New History from the Imperial Conquests to the Present
By "central Asia", Khalid means "Turkestan", both the eastern parts conquered by the Qing in the 1700s and the western parts conquered by the Romanovs in the 1800s. (Thus Afghanistan, Tibet, Mongolia, etc., feature only incidentally.) He begins with those conquests, after a little scene-setting to make their events comprehensible, and then goes down to 2020 and the on-going police state and cultural genocide in Xinjiang. Khalid's great (and persuasive) theme is how ordinary this history is, in a global perspective --- imperial conquest, the arrival of modernity, the development of nationalism and the construction of national cultures (he doesn't use the phrase "peasants into Uzbeks", but he comes close), Communism as a vehicle for nationalism, ambitious-to-mad state projects to develop economies, to transform nature and/or transform society, widening entanglement with global culture and economic forces... This is what the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries were like, for much if not most of the world. It's extremely scholarly --- Khalid has clearly read and synthesized almost everything --- but still very readable. If you are at all interested in this part of the world, it's very much worth your time. §
Wesley C. Salmon, with Richard C. Jeffrey and Jeffrey G. Greeno, Statistical Explanation and Statistical Relevance (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1971)
1300 words of review: Distinctions That Make Differences to Chances.
Annalee Newitz, Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age
I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it's pleasantly-written and engaging popular social science about four interesting and important cities that were, for one reason or another, abandoned and (largely) forgotten: Çatalhöyük, Pompeii, Angkor and Cahokia. I learned from it, and I mostly enjoyed reading it. On the other hand, I sometimes found myself irritated by the sensation that Newitz was pandering to the prejudices of people like me --- all the cities were full of diverse immigrants, etc., etc. (Looking around after writing that, I see James Palmer had a similar reaction to those bits.)
Beyond those matters of tone, though, I do want to quibble with the way Newitz presents these cities. Many archaeologists have a bad tendency to present speculative interpretations as though they were facts. (They are not, of course, alone in this, and I've complained about this before.) This tendency seems to be very much on display here in the chapters on Çatalhöyük and Cahokia, where we have no writings to fill us in on ideologies and structures of inequality (not to say oppression). I can't help but suspect that this makes those cities better screens for modern projections than Pompeii and Angkor. There's also some trash-talking of V. Gordon Childe that strikes me as unfair, and dismissal of the idea that there are developmental trajectories to more hierarchy, size and complexity as Eurocentric myths, rather than cross-cultural empirical regularities. (And of course a key part of the Enlightenment world-view was seeing Europe as a place which had regressed in these regards for a millennium of barbarism, "mired in the superstitions and brutal monarchies of the Middle Ages", as Newitz puts it on p. 210.)
On re-reading this, I see I've given more space to what irritated me, which is mostly incidental, than to what I enjoyed --- so I will just re-iterate that despite my quibbles, I did enjoy. §
(Thanks to Jan Johnson for my copy of the book.)
Fredrik Barth, Cosmologies in the Making: A Generative Approach to Cultural Variation in Inner New Guinea
750-plus words of review: Cosmology and Cosmologists --- The Modern Ok School.
(I forget what chain of references first put this on my radar --- probably something in the Dan Sperber / Pascal Boyer nexus, but that's honestly just me guessing.)
Edmund Stump, The Roof at the Bottom of the World: Discovering the Transantarctic Mountains
A scientist's winningly enthusiastic history of exploration in the Antarctic mountains, from the first visits to the continent, through the heroic era, to the early 1960s. (It's startling just how much more massive the US's post-1945 efforts were than everything that came before.) The stories are supplemented with Stump's own memories of decades of geologizing on the continent, and his very good photographs. §
Steven Nadler, A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza's Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age
Partly exposition of the Theological-Political Treatise, partly a biography of Spinoza, partly intellectual, political and religious history to set the context. I enjoyed it, but since I've never actually read the Treatise, despite an interest in Spinoza, I'm in no position to judge it. §

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Writing for Antiquity; Philosophy Enigmas of Chance; Afghanistan and Central Asia; The Great Transformation; Minds, Brains, and Neurons; Commit a Social Science; Psychoceramics

Posted at February 28, 2022 23:59 | permanent link

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