July 31, 2023

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, July 2023

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste, and no qualifications to opine on the sociology and industrial organization of intellectuals, political philosophy, or American history. Also, most of my reading this month was done at odd hours and/or while bottle-feeding a baby, so I'm less reliable and more cranky than usual.

Allison Brennan, The Lost Girls, Make Them Pay, Breaking Point, Too Far Gone
Mind candy series mystery. As with many long-running series, the soap-operatic elements keep piling up, and I honestly enjoyed those less than seeing Lucy tackle the murder-or-kidnapping-of-the-week, but still fun. (Previously.) §
Daniel Drezner, The Ideas Industry: How Pessimists, Partisans, and Plutocrats are Transforming the Marketplace of Ideas
Popular social science. Drezner's main argument is as follows. He begins by distinguishing between "public intellectuals", who are critical and multi-sided, and "thought leaders", who have One Big Idea (if not One Weird Trick), which they push relentlessly. (I don't think the phrase "policy entrepreneur" appears in the book; the old-fashioned but apt term "projector" definitely doesn't.) Recent changes in the societies of the rich democracies have increased the sway of thought leaders, and reduced that of public intellectuals.
One of these is rising economic inequality ("plutocrats"): rich people are constitutionally more inclined to pay for advocacy, especially flattering or self-serving advocacy, than for critique. Here Drezner advances, without much fuss, some sensible-sounding notions about the relations between material interests and ideology. (I actually wish he'd elaborate a theory of ideology on this basis, but that would call for a different sort of book.)
A second change is the rise of partisanship. This makes it easier to ignore criticisms coming from the other side. (You will, after all, often be right in thinking that those criticisms are made ignorantly, in bad faith, or merely to posture before the critic's own side.) This is, of course, bad for reason and democracy.
The third change is the decline in trust in established institutions ("pessimism"). These have not been replaced by alternative gate-keeping institutions, but rather by more of a free-for-all scrum for attention. (Again: "Actually, 'Dr. Internet' is the name of the monsters' creator.") This exacerbates already-existing tendencies in intellectual life to highly-skewed, winner-take-a-hell-of-a-lot outcomes. His descriptions of the temptations to chase those rewards is vivid.
Drezner does little to address why plutocrats, partisans, and the plain people of the Internet should have such an appetite for intellectual fare. It's probably impossible for social animals of our sort to conduct our common lives without justifications and rationalizations (cf. Mercier and Sperber). That those rationales should be intellectual, that they should take the form of culturally-transmitted abstractions, general ideas, appeals to impersonal principle, appeals to evidence, attempts at logical argument, etc., is another matter and evidently far more contingent. Here I personally would gesture at the very high levels of education attained in all the countries Drezner is concerned with, and/or generations of the Flynn effect.
Drezner is careful to explain that the changes and prospects are not all grim. (There are real benefits to less gatekeeping, even for public intellectuals in Drezner's sense.) He's also careful to note that in many ways the social life of the mind has always been bad. (This is cold comfort, but at least avoids catastrophizing.) But he leaves me convinced that he's right about specific ways in which that social life has recently become dysfunctional than it was, with little prospect of improvement in the foreseeable future. §
Disclaimer: Drezner is a co-author of a co-author, and a fellow relic of the The Second Age of the Web early '00s blogging. But I don't think we've ever met, and I feel no obligations to read or to praise his books. (Especially not years after they come out...)
Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, or, The Evening Redness in the West
Re-read in memoriam. This is a strange but effective fusion of truly ugly action and truly beautiful language. Revisiting after some decades, I can see how it's influenced a lot of other, later books I've read, some for the better, some very much not. (If it weren't for the dates, I'd think Stephen King's The Gunslinger was in the former set.)
Two thoughts: 1. As usual, it's a mistake to identify the opinions of characters --- even ones who are given a lot of room to opine --- with the opinions of the author. In particular, I see a lot of people quoting the judge's speeches as though they were Cormac's views, but the action of the novel makes it clear that the judge is a cunning, deceitful, possibly-inhuman villain! He is not to be trusted! (Reading is hard.) 2. Something about the narration's frequent recourse to the ancient, the primeval, to mysterious forces under the earth, etc., makes me wonder about what Cormac thought of Lovecraft. §
Disclaimer: I knew Cormac through SFI; not well, but well enough to call him Cormac.
Tommie Shelby, The Idea of Prison Abolition
This is a thorough and sympathetic, but ultimately very negative, investigation of case for abolition of prisons, from a view point that tries to meld analytical Marxism with what's come to be called the "black radical tradition" [1]. Much of the argument here proceeds by way of exposition and critique of the prison-abolitionist writings of Angela Davis [2].
Many self-proclaimed prison abolitionists seem to merely be expressing outrage at way we treat crime through hyperbole. But some of them mean it. (Some of them, I suspect, have been swayed by their own hyperbole.) In any event it's a morally serious issue, which deserves to be examined with some care, whatever one might think of some of its advocates. This Shelby does.
Shelby outright dismisses the idea that society might have a legitimate interest in meeting out retribution for crimes [3], but accepts interests in deterrence [4], in rehabilitation, and (I think) in incapacitation. He further explains that consequences for anti-social behavior will only deter if they are, in fact, unpleasant. This does not mean that those consequences need to be horrors, but unless people would rather not experience them, they simply will not work. Even if one wishes to emphasize gentler means that might better serve the aims of rehabilitation and (perhaps) incapacitation, those will need to be back-stopped by some kind of deterrence of those who are neither rehabilitated nor incapacitated.
Shelby tries his best to be fair to Davis's claims that the legitimate social functions of prisons can be better served without imprisonment, but ends up having to admit that there just isn't very much substance to those claims. I honestly doubted whether he was really being fair to Davis here, so at this point read her Are Prisons Obsolete?, and concluded that Shelby was being, in fact, far too generous.
To sum up, Shelby pretty convincingly demolishes the arguments for prison abolition, i.e., for thinking that prisons have no place in just societies. He is very careful to say that none of his arguments imply that current American prisons, or our criminal justice system more generally, are acceptable. §
Disclaimer: I met Shelby years ago at a workshop, where I was impressed by his presentation, and he was generous with his time in offering suggestions on work-then-in-progress. This contributed to my picking up his book.
[1]: Shelby elaborates on his conception of his own "Afro-Analytical Marxism" in this 2021 essay. Like most analytical Marxists, he seems more interested in fairly orthodox historical materialism and political economy --- the sort of topics someone shaped by the Second International, like Kautsky or Trotsky or Luxemburg, would've recognized --- than in the Frankfurt School. (Davis, of course, as Marcuse's student, owes more to Frankfurt.) Thus I think can continuing to view Joseph Heath as the world's leading, because only, rational-choice critical theorist. ^
[2]: Certain episodes in Davis's career go (tactfully?) unmentioned. ^
[3]: The dismissal is forthright, but perhaps a bit hasty. Those who are wronged by others, or their family and friends, will tend to seek retribution from those who have wronged them. In fact they will tend to seek disproportionate and intemperate retribution. Such excessive retribution is both unjust itself, and apt to set of a vicious cycle of feud and revenge. To prevent this, punishment of wrong-doers by the state must include, and be seen to include, reasonable and proportionate retribution. --- To be clear, I'm not saying this is unanswerable, just that I wish Shelby hadn't dismissed retribution so swiftly. ^
[4]: There is a disconcerting possibility about deterrence which Shelby doesn't discuss, but which his arguments do not, so far as I can see, foreclose. This is that punishing people for crimes they didn't commit would have much the same deterrent effect as punishing the guilty, so long as most people thought that they were guilty. Someone has to suffer in order to fulfill the legitimate public function of deterring wrong-doing [5], but it's trickier than I'd like to say why, ethically, it should be criminals who do the suffering. (Of course, the task becomes easier if one believes in retribution.) ^
[5]: Conversely, I could easily make a case for the authorities only convincingly pretending to punish anyone. But such a deception would be very fragile, with bad consequences when it unraveled; perhaps that's enough to rule it out. ^
Bryan Burrough, Days of Rage: America's Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence
A journalistic, but very thorough, history of violent left-wing radicals from the late 1960s through the early 1980s. (Right-wing violence during the same period is outside Burrough's scope, but it would make an interesting set of comparison cases.) Many of the figures he discusses --- including Davis! --- also show up in Shelby's book, albeit presented in rather different lights. §
Adolph Reed, Jr., The South: Jim Crow and Its Afterlives
If you like Reed's essays at nonsite.org (and I usually do), you will enjoy this, and if not, not. The marketing material from the publisher makes it seem vastly more ambitious than it really is, but Reed's introductory remarks make the scope clear. §
Simon Spurrier and Matías Bergara, Coda vols. 1, 2, 3
Comic book mind candy fantasy. Superficially, this is a cynical, post-apocalyptic subversion of the Matter of Middle Earth. In fact, the hard-bitten surface merely conceals a core which actually believes in epic fantasy, both in the content and in the classical form (a trilogy ending in a eucatastrophe). §

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; The Beloved Republic; The Progressive Forces; Philosophy; Commit a Social Science; The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Tales of Our Ancestors; The Commonwealth of Letters

Posted at July 31, 2023 23:59 | permanent link

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