November 30, 2011

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, November 2011

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.

F For Fake
Watched after Jessa Crispin's recommendation, which I cannot improve upon. An utterly delightful movie.
(There is an essay, if not a dissertation, to be written about the male gaze in this movie. How much of this is due to Welles being taken with Ms. Kodar's [admittedly stunning] legs, how much was aimed at mere commercial sex-appeal, and how much was a deliberate manipulation and distraction of half or so of the audience? The way the spectators are made to look foolish in the hidden-camera sequence, and the plot of the last third or so, incline me towards thinking a lot of it was deliberate, but without much confidence.)
Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R.
A sympathetic, if lightly skeptical, look at the three great movements for political reform in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: the Populists, the Progressives, and the New Deal. Hofstadter presumes that the reader is already familiar with the narrative history, and is more interested in the history of ideas, and even more, of attitudes and moral values, than of practical political struggles. Particularly well-drawn is the contrast between the values of Progressive reformers and their urban middle-class supporters, and those of urban machine bosses and their immigrant supporters, in ch. V. (This part of the book was, of course, adapted for the movies as The Great McGinty.) He does, however, go into some detail about the economic background to the earlier two movements, and especially the Populists, dismissing the idea that it had anything to do with the closing of the frontier, instead emphasizing the world-wide distress inflicted on commercial agriculture, which included almost all American farmers, by decades-long deflation. (He does not, however, otherwise have much to say about the international context, unlike some people.) Hofstadter has no time for Populist conspiracy-mongering, but also leaves the reader in no doubt that the farmers were, in fact, getting screwed. Conservatives are ignored except as background figures (he quotes Lionel Trilling's quip about how American conservatives have not so much ideas as "irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas" in his introduction), though he is quite good at bringing out how much all these movements saw themselves as restoring a republic which had become corrupted. On this basis, one might say that the default condition of the American dream is "betrayed".
All in all, it's both an impressive work of history, and an excellent piece of writing. I have no doubt that real historians consider it utterly obsolete — we are now further away from Hofstadter, writing in 1955, than he was from the Progressives — but I still found it worthwhile.
Mark A. R. Kleiman, When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment
Kleiman's own precis in Washington Monthly gives all the highlights of the book in an admirably lucid way. If, after reading that, you are fascinated want to see how he deals with the details, this book will be worth your time. Otherwise, you've read the Good Parts Version. (Also, what LizardBreath said.)
Philip Kitcher, The Ethical Project
This is a very substantial book which attempts to re-cast the nature and history of ethics as a form of "social technology", aimed at remedying "altruism failures", and generally moving humanity beyond the kind of social life endured by other primates — nasty, poor, and brutish, but not solitary. (Though he doesn't mention it, this is almost an inversion of Brecht's line "grub first, then ethics".) The guiding stars are Dewey (especially Human Nature and Conduct), John Stuart Mill (especially On Liberty and The Subjection of Women), and modern work on the evolution of cooperation. Kitcher builds from here to an examination of what counts as ethical progress, appropriate method and substance for meta-ethics, and appropriate method and recommendations for actual substantive ethics at the present day. The latter are strongly egalitarian, and not just founded on the "expanding circle" of empathy notion.
I have a lot of sympathy for Kitcher's over-all position, and even for many of specifics. I have a very deep respect for his work in the philosophy of science (The Advancement of Science and The Nature of Mathematical Knowledge have both been actually useful to me in practice). Nonetheless, I found this book unsatisfying, and increasingly unsatisfying as it went on. He set himself too easy a task by showing that his "pragmatic naturalism" is no more hopeless than the approaches to ethics now dominant in academic philosophy in English-speaking countries; those same approaches have far too much influence on his ideas about how to think ethically now (as opposed to how our ancestors might have done so back in the day); his acceptance of population thinking is inadequate; and he did not really come to grips with anti-egalitarian positions in their strongest forms. All of these points, obviously, deserve fuller fleshing-out, but who knows when or if I'll get around to that.
A rather partial set of points of unhappiness: The reification of discrete societies (cf. Tilly). The assumption that each society has one, and only one, ethical code, which is explicit, or can be made so, and to which all subscribe. (He does not push population thinking far enough, despite his citation of Sperber. Also, cf. under Hofstader above.) Running together a society's ethical codes with its institutions, and even with the consequences of its institutions. (An extreme example: sex traffic is an extremely institutionalized and organized crime, but not even those benefiting from it claim it's ethically justified.) The rather bizarre recommendation to think about ethics by carrying out imaginary conversations with people one does not know, by imagining what they would think and want, if their situation were very different, and big chunks of their identity (especially religion) were replaced by something more agreeable. (This seems like the pernicious influence of contemporary ethicists.) Broadly: fails to provide any convincing explanation of why his preferred function for a social technology of normative guidance, namely fixing failures of altruism, should over-ride any other conceivable function. (For instance: "the increase of man's power over nature and the abolition of man's power over man".) Even if he is right and his function came first, why should that have any influence over us now?
Relatedly: The consideration of how to answer the elitist "free spirit" (call him Fritz) doesn't allow Fritz enough imagination. Kitcher allows as how developing one's talents and potentialities is a good thing, but says that even if only an elite can do it, only equality of opportunity can recruit that elite, and regards this as settling the matter. But Fritz can reply equality of opportunity means spreading resources so thin that everyone merely has the opportunity to be a yokel, and that for his fellow free spirits to truly develop and manifest their potential, inequality of resources and even domination are required. He could go on to claim that the making of those splendid, free-spirited lives is intrinsically valuable, and if it means exploiting the human herds, what of it? The latter are valuable only to the extent that the help the elite. If in some petty mathematical sense this is not the "optimal" elite, who cares? Let those people think how to renew their ranks for the next generation; Kitcher doesn't rate a say. (I don't believe any of what I'm putting in Fritz's mouth, but I did read Nietzsche as a teenager.)
Update: a review by a professional.
Jeannine Hall Gailey, She Returns to the Floating World
Poetry; more mythology, fairy tales, science fiction, and fall-out from growing up in Oak Ridge and the shadow of the bomb. The whole forms a love letter to Japan. (Samples of the poetry; "Introduction to California Poetics" is not in this collection, but also very nice.)
Howard Andrew Jones, The Desert of Souls
Mind candy. Historical fantasy resulting from blending Robert Howard with The Arabian Nights; not noticeably orientalist in the bad way. Leaves open the door for sequels, which I'd read, but complete in itself.
Kate Beaton, Hark! A Vagrant
Because you are an intelligent being of taste and refinement with a working Internet connection, you already read Hark! A Vagrant. Wouldn't you like to support that most worthy artist by buying a handsome compilation of her work?

The Commonwealth of Lettersl Scientifiction and Fantastica; Writing for Antiquity; The Progressive Forces; Philosophy; Natural Science of the Human Species; The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts; Commit a Social Science; Linkage; The Beloved Republic

Posted by crshalizi at November 30, 2011 23:59 | permanent link

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