Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A Week Wisely Spent is a Precious Thing

Yeah, well, with the benefit of hindsight we can all be Confucius, can’t we?

Seven days lying around in 30-degree heat can’t be considered a total loss, of course, but I just wish I’d had enough cop-on to realize that thin books are lightweight not just in literal terms but also in literary terms. For anyone who hasn’t noticed, let me draw your attention to the fact that Aer Lingus has dropped its carry-on limit from 10 kg to 6 kg (Ryanair is still 10 kg, but who’s going to fly Ryanair?) and charges €18 each way to put your now overweight carry-on luggage in the hold. Attempting to negotiate or circumvent this new limit by bringing only the slightest and weediest of paperbacks that can fit in your jacket pockets might save you money, but it could also lead to disappointing afternoons on the terrace.

I was keen to give John Manning’s The Finger Ratio a sympathetic reading. His argument that men with long fingers, and particularly those whose ring finger is longer than their forefinger, make better footballers, have higher IQs, are more musical, and have bigger penises than other men resonated with this particular 6 foot 4 very-long-fingered reader, and looking at that list, well, 3 out of 4 isn’t bad (I’ve never been any good at music). But reading the book is a real exercise in deflation. I already knew of the very limited research linking ring-finger length to penis length, and there isn’t much additional evidence in its favour, only the suggestion that because pre-natal testosterone plays a significant role in the growth of the ring finger and is also involved in the development of other masculine traits in the foetus, all of them are connected in a fairly straightforward way. It all seems highly speculative, and even though Manning presents research findings throughout, one comes away with the suspicion that he’s the only bloke working in this field; all the studies related to ring-finger length and musical ability or breast cancer or homosexuality or heart attacks appear to have been carried out on students at a university in Lancashire, where Manning was a professor of psychology. I exaggerate for comic effect, but this is the cumulative impression generated by the text. I imagine Manning and his staff measuring finger ratios of a couple of hundred students then testing and measuring them for all manner of illnesses or personality qualities before attempting to wring as many different research papers as possible out of the exercise. I’m sure I’m quite wrong. It’s just how it reads.

So what can I tell you? The jury is still out. I can only go from personal and anecdotal experience, which confirm everything Manning says. I’d have just liked stronger evidence with which to lord it over my short-fingered inferiors.

Now here’s a bit of advice for you: Read the small print when buying from Amazon’s Marketplace. I was chuffed to get hold of what I thought was Marx’s Grundrisse for 33p plus p & p, but even before opening the parcel when it arrived, I knew something was wrong, and the only advantage that Marx’s Grundrisse, by David McLellan, has over the original is that you can fit it in your back pocket.

Which is not to say that this isn’t an informative and enlightening work, only that it presents highly selective extracts from the original text, and, if anything, it’s made me even keener to get hold of the original. The Grundrisse is much broader in scope than Capital, which makes sense given that the three volumes of Capital were only intended to be the first volume of six on Economics in general and that the Grundrisse was intended not merely as a first draft of Capital, but research for the entire project, covering “capital in general,” landed property, wage-labour, estate, foreign trade, and the worlkd market. All of this, of course, would still only have constituted Marx’s contribution to economics; as early as January 1851, McLellan tells us, Engels was urging Marx to “hurry up with the completion and publication of your Economics,” and by April Marx was saying,

“I am so far advanced that in five weeks I will be through with the whole economic shit. And that done, I will work over my Economics at home and throw myself into another science at the Museum.”

Engels knew him better, observing,

“. . . as long as you still have unread a book that you think important, you do not get down to writing.”

The rest, of course, is historical materialism.

I spotted Alain Badiou’s Infinite Thought: Truth and the Return of Philosophy in a second-hand bookshop in Drogheda and knew I recognized the name. I figured I should give it a spin since it promised a brief and fairly easy to understand introduction to Badiou’s thought. Yes, well, that much it achieves, but little else. I won’t be attempting Being & Event anytime soon and won’t lose any sleep over what I could conceivably be missing. Most of what I understood seemed to be only a reformulation of ideas found elsewhere, and what was original seemed to me to be unconvincing at best.

One idea of Badiou’s that did strike me as interesting was his account of the subject and the notion that individuals are not subjects all the time, only when they act in fidelity to a chance encounter with an event that disrupts the situation in which they find themselves. Interesting in a superficial way, and mainly because a similar reflection arises in John Perkins’s Confessions of an Economic Hitman. Perkins explains that

“I have come to understand that life is composed of a series of coincidences. How we react to these—how we exercise what some refer to as free will—is everything; the choices we make within the boundaries of the twists of fate determine who we are.”

We don’t have much control over our lives, Perkins tells us, but there are particular forks in the road that appear now and again, and the fork that we take determines our futures but also says something about the person we are and want to be. This may or may not be a universalizable experience or else perhaps a mere platitude, but it’s in keeping with Perkins’s personality simply because he appears to prevaricate so much. Confessions of an Economic Hitman functions as a companion volume to Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine.

Whereas Klein focuses on the doctrine and its broad application, Perkins presents an on-the-ground memoir of his activities as a consultant given the specific goal of recommending programs to foreign governments that deliberately placed them in debt to the United States once they accepted the massive development loans required to implement them. It’s a fascinating book, albeit a little short on detail and long on memoir; it’s more of an apologia than a confession, and Perkins seems to skate over the little issue of what took him so long to take responsibility for the damage he was causing. Despite claiming to have misgivings from an early date about his actions, he repeatedly and knowingly goes back to work for firms that have murky histories. Either he’s easily seduced by temptation or else he’s just seen the opportunity to make a few bucks from his life story but reckons nobody will want to pay up if he doesn’t express any remorse. Perhaps the book’s original title, Conscience of an Economic Hitman, was deemed too ironic to use.

Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman was a breath of warm Saharan air, or maybe that was the warm air blowing off the Sahara. When I read that Sennett contributes a regular column to The Spectator and that his previous books included The Corrosion of Character, The Fall of Public Man, and Respect, I thought “Uh-oh. It’s Christopher Lasch all over again.” But from the opening pages of this book, Sennett undermines any assumption that this is just another cultural conservative whinging about what has been lost. This is a book that is erudite and wide-ranging in a GOOD way, by which I mean he engages the reader rather than overwhelms them with jargon, fancy references (such as Christopher Lasch!), and obscure, intimidating theories. The book does start to drag on a bit, when Sennett delves into the commonalities of craftsmanship, but his definition of what constitutes a craft is so generous and inclusive that you won’t feel a Luddite or defender of petty-bourgeois artisanship for accepting that work engaged in enthusiastically for its own sake is a more meaningful way to live than working simply to pay the bills while screwing the boss as much as possible in the process, no matter how much fun and ingenuity that might also require. Anyone who has tried to write a joke, craft a short story, produce a blog post they can be proud of, write and play a tune of their own, design a software program, make a cabinet or dresser or bedside table, frame a painting, you name it, will appreciate the lessons that our efforts at creativity can teach us, not least how difficult it can be and how resistant the world can be to our endeavours. A new respect for ourselves, for the world, a new sense of humility, and a new sense of self-esteem can all be generated by our struggles, whether we succeed or fail. And it makes sitting on your arse reading crappy books for a week feel, if not wasted, at least relatively unproductive.

Two less impressive books to close with: Nudge, by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein. The gurus of behavioural economics state the bleeding obvious. As with the Sennett book, I waited till the paperback edition came out. Not, this time, for ease of transportation, but because I couldn’t believe the price being demanded for the hardback editions was warranted by the content. I was proved right.

I was alerted to Alan Macfarlane’s Japan through the Looking Glass by Alan Macfarlane himself. Having recently bought a Mac, I went onto iTunes University and downloaded all the Cambridge University lectures on anthropology free of charge and started to sit in and take notes. In one of the early lectures, Macfarlane mentions this book, along with several fascinating and little-known facts about Japanese society that were enough to intrigue this sucker. I’m only five chapters in, so perhaps it’s too early to say, but I notice that Macfarlane is the author or editor of 20 books, but if they’re all as superficial and vague as this, then that’s not as impressive as it sounds. I’d have liked to have seen evidence of much more detailed sociological research and wider reading; instead we have the accounts of a small number of turn-of-the-century commentators like Lafcadio Hearn and Isabella Bird. The book is divided thematically—People, Power, Ideas, Wealth, and so on—which allows Macfarlane to outline various anthropological and sociological theories of each and then explain why Japan does not easily fit into any recognized category before concluding each chapter by expressing mild exasperation that Japan is, in some sense, beyond description. In short, if you want to know what Japan is NOT, then this is the book for you.

Still, it’s great to be home. I missed you both.

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