Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Half-Baked/Soaked Book Reviews

Back from visiting Manuel Estímulo, a week devoted mostly to the consumption of ultraviolet light, red wine, and books. I particularly recommend the wine. And a couple of the books.

Cosmopolis: the Hidden Agenda of Modernity, by Stephen Toulmin

In a fit of cruelty, I left this book behind for subsequent holidaymakers to peruse. Toulmin's argument was largely lost on me but seemed to involve a sociology of philosophies in order to relativize enlightenment thought. I was hoping it would say something interesting and novel about urban modernity and cosmopolitanism, but if it did, it passed me by. Charles Lemert reckons that Postmodernism Is Not What You Think; Toulmin believes that Modernity Is Not What You Think. But then what you think modernity is is not what he thinks you think modernity is. I think.

Anyway, here's the blurb from Richard Rorty, which makes the book sound more interesting than it is:

In the seventeenth century, a vision arose which was to captivate the Western imagination for the next three hundred years: the vision of Cosmopolis, a society as rationally ordered as the Newtonian view of nature. While fueling extraordinary advances in all fields of human endeavor, this vision perpetuated a hidden yet persistent agenda: the delusion that human nature and society could be fitted into precise and manageable rational categories. Stephen Toulmin confronts that agenda--its illusions and its consequences for our present and future world. "By showing how different the last three centuries would have been if Montaigne, rather than Descartes, had been taken as a starting point, Toulmin helps destroy the illusion that the Cartesian quest for certainty is intrinsic to the nature of science or philosophy."

First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, by Slavoj Žižek

A philosopher for our age, if by that one means a philosopher lacking any rigorous empirical standards of reference. Anything's fair game as a source of evidence for Žižek, including Wikipedia, Newsweek, and Lacan, FFS. This is just bricolage in the service of producing original and novel interpretations of the world without having to measure them against any objective criteria. His books offer the jouissance of avant-gardism while reinforcing the idea of philosophy as conspicuous consumption. The perfect postmodernist thinker, and I don't mean that as a compliment.

The Equality Illusion: The Truth about Women and Men Today,
by Kat Banyard

It's pretty depressing that a book like this still needs to be written. There isn't a huge amount in it that's news to anyone who's read de Beauvoir, Friedan, Greer, Dworkin et al., but it does no harm to reiterate their arguments for another generation of women who may need to be reminded of the persistence of sexual inequality. There's obviously some material that covers the past decade or so, thereby updating the argument, but little else has changed, as Banyard herself points out.

The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

Well, this should be a compulsory textbook in schools. Based on a combined five decades of research by the authors, it does pretty much what it says on the cover, namely, demonstrates that the more equal a society it is, the healthier it is in a myriad other ways: less crime, less mental and physical ill-health, less ecological impact, less drug addiction, greater social cohesion and public-spiritidness, etc., etc. The authors clearly found it difficult to spin their research out into a full-length book, mind you. They extend their argument beyond their own research, drawing in evidence from elsewhere to support their case; stuff about mirror neurons, social intelligence, and the like. Difficult, all the same, not to love this work, but then the authors are preaching to the converted in my case. €5.47 at the Book Depository right now, including postage and packaging. Of course, you should get it second-hand if you can.

Diplomatic Baggage: The Adventures of a Trailing Spouse, by Brigid Keenan

Laugh-out-loud memoir of the wife of an EU ambassador as she is forced to follow in his wake to the outer reaches of the diplomatic comfort zone. A gentle comedy, at the same time, because the reader cannot but feel sympathy for Keenan, not just as an innocent abroad but also as a much-put-upon appendage to her husband's career. One or two politically incorrect episodes—making fun of foreigners' silly names isn't exactly high comedy—but nonetheless one of the funniest books I've read in a long long time.

When You Are Engulfed in Flames, by David Sedaris

It's difficult not to like David Sedaris's bitter but self-aware writings. Here you get the usual fayre, the same stuff to be found in Naked, Me Talk Pretty One Day, Holidays on Ice, and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. Only not quite as entertaining. Maybe I'm suffering from Sedaris overload. As one-trick ponies go, though, he's a superb writer and clearly knows his audience well.

The Black Jacobins, by C. L. R. James

It is greatly to my embarrassment that I have not read James's book on the birth of Haiti before now. This is a fascinating piece of historical writing that covers a series of events that have been marginalized by English-language historians and yet which played a major role in the formation of Western civilization, and the repercussions of which are still with us. You have to get past the odd bit of Marxist doggerel here and there, but James is a warm and attractive writer who draws you into his work with lively but judiciously succinct accounts that keep the narrative tight and moving, in both senses of the word.


Imposs1904 said...

Review of the Zizek book in last month's Socialist Standard:

Stakhanovite output

You have to scroll down the page to get to th review.

John said...

Cheers, Darren. It has the virtue of taking Zizek more seriously than I could. ;-)