Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Books on the Fly

Each time I update LibraryThing with my latest reads I feel guilty about not offering an opinion for the benefit of friends. It's rare that anyone would actually want to read anything accumulating in that pile in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen unless prompted by the recommendations of others or as punishment for some ineffable crime. Even so, the odd book turns up that actually looks like it might be worth seeking out, and when it isn't, I want to make sure my friends are forewarned. Books very very rarely live up to their hype, and more fool us if we take the word of paid shills in the mass media or blurb writers married to the author's daughter/son/publisher. So here's a quick run-through of the worthy, worthwhile, and worthless from the past couple of months:

The Information Age Trilogy, by Manuel Castells.

I encountered Castells in passing through a reference to him in either one of David Harvey's books or a footnote to Erik Olin Wright and was intrigued enough to want to find out more. Castells is a self-described neo-Marxist who takes seriously the significance of the new social movements that had such an impact in the 1960s and which he documented at the time. He also accepts some of the implications of the move from industrialism to post-industrialism without yielding to the relativistic arguments advanced by postmodernism. His is a Marxism, it should be said, that most orthodox Marxists would find problematic. As an anarchist I saw little to disagree with in Castells's description and diagnosis of social dynamics. He is what Olin Wright would describe as a "sociological Marxist" rather than a "historical Marxist," which is to say he might more suitably be called a Conflict Theorist; he disregards the vulgar Marxist base-superstructure dichotomy in favour of interpenetrating social forces and sees no need for a labour theory of value to explain capitalist dynamics. Consequently, his works constitute a clear-eyed up-to-date account of globalization and neo-liberalism reinforced by in-depth case studies of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the rise of the women's movement, and the transformation of the labour market. It makes for fascinating reading, but at around 1,500 pages (excluding index and bibliography) it's a challenging read, particularly when one feels the argument could have been summed up in a work a quarter of that size. The sheer quantity of statistical and empirical data is impressive but doesn't add that much to the discussion; most of it could happily have been contained in the appendices.

A relatively light read after Castells, Leier's book is a reasonably decent biography of Bakunin that doesn't strain the intellect too much and manages to avoid in-depth accounts of Bakunin's writings other than to acknowledge his anti-Semitism and various other flaws and to draw out his differences with Marx. I found Leier's almost matey style and frequent references to current popular culture highly annoying. They felt completely out of place, for me at least, in what is ostensibly otherwise a serious work. This isn't a book that would entice the reader to find out more about Bakunin, but it will satisfy a general readership who might not have known of the big man's existence before.

A New Paradigm for Understanding Today's World and

Thinking Differently, both by Alain Touraine

Touraine has always hovered on the periphery of my awareness ever since A level sociology 30 years ago, and the discovery that he is Castells's mentor prompted me to seek out his most recent publications in order to get a grip on his work. A New Paradigm for Today's World pretty much repays the compliment to Castells, drawing on his ideas and research and quoting him directly on occasion. A bit of a lovefest all round, in fact. Essentially, Touraine's argument (I conflate both books here) is that sociology and political theory have lost sight of the role and significance of the subject, both descriptively (sociology) and prescriptively (political theory). Sociology is so focused on structural, deterministic explanations that it fails to recognize the contribution of the subject in praxis. At the same time, French society is so hierarchical and centralized, so state-dependent, that the rights of the individual are lost or surrendered in collectivist solutions to social problems like the wearing of headscarves in French schools. He thus recommends a new sociological approach that takes sufficient account of the role of the individual within structures (which sounds to me like the late Sartre, even though Touraine cites Sartre as the founding thinker of the dominant ideology permeating French political thought), as well as a new politics founded on the promotion and protection of the rights of the individual (which sounds to me like a call for liberal, Amnesty-style campaigning).

What struck me above all, however, was how very French Touraine's descriptions are, particularly Thinking Differently, where the description of sociology's failings surely only apply to French sociology. Much of what he demands from the discipline strikes me as common-sensical among British sociologists. Vive la difference, I guess.

There's a fantastic, comprehensive demolition of arguments for cognitively based sexual differences yet to be written. Cordelia Fine's book isn't it. This is page after page of à la carte research findings that provide evidence to contradict the widely known arguments in the works of folk like Simon Baron-Cohen, John Gray, Stephen Pinker, David Buss and so on, whose works seem all the more convincing because of the way they are couched in neurological terms. Fine is a neurologist herself and well able to dismantle their arguments. My objection is only to Fine's writing style. I began reading her earlier work A Mind of Its Own, but you won't see it included in My Library because it's practically unreadable. Tedious and repetitive. And sadly, this book follows the same format. Fine's position is most likely closer to the truth than that of her targets, assuming that her depth of knowledge and familiarity with the evidence count for something, but her lack of rhetorical skills will mean, I suspect, that fewer people take on board her views simply because she fails to convey them with any consideration for the reader.

A bit of a hodge-podge, this one. I wasn't really sure what to make of it. Marks seems to have a bee in his bonnet about the claims made for and respect bestowed upon science and scientists, but his book doesn't hold together in any coherent way. He starts off by rehearsing the now-familiar arguments about scientific method—problems with induction, Popper, Kuhn, Feyerabend, all make an appearance—before proceeding to identify social and professional influences that distort or undermine the onward, ever-upward progress in the accumulation of impartial, objective knowledge about the world. As an anthropologist he makes legitimate and perceptive points consistent with a form of epistemological relativism that your stereotypical scientist (think Dawkins here; Marks seems to) would find appalling but which any sociologist of science would shrug his/her shoulders at. Finally, Marks lays in to a range of pseudoscientific theories like Creationism and Intelligent Design, but also Eugenics, Scientific Racism, Social Darwinism, Evolutionary Psychology, and Alchemy, all now discredited, he insists, but which at one time or another have been regarded as perfectly respectable by similarly respectable scientists.

I read this book in preparation for Steve Shapin's Never Pure: Historical Studies of Science as if It Was Produced by People with Bodies, Situated in Time, Space, Culture, and Society, and Struggling for Credibility and Authority, but on reflection I should perhaps have proceeded straight to Go. I wouldn't have collected £200 but might have saved 15.


Anonymous said...

Great reviews, thanks John! One question, perhaps more for Marks than for you. How do we tell in advance whether a theory is "pseudoscientific"? A prominent evolutionary psychologist I read once said that EP might well turn out to have as much validity as phrenology. But surely it's premature to lump EP in with alchemy?

John said...

Hi Stuart

You can ask Marks that question but I don't think you'd get a very clear answer, if the book is anything to go by. The Popperian concept of pseudoscience itself has come in for plenty of criticism, as I'm sure you know, so I'm not entirely sure how useful it is anyway. Marks's attacks are pretty scattershot and generalized, tbh. Although I'm sure I'm being unfair, his definition of pseudoscience might almost be, "whichever of competing theories the mass media plump for."

John said...

I managed to use "sure" three times in that comment. My unconscious is telling me I need a shower.

Anonymous said...

"Although I'm sure I'm being unfair, his definition of pseudoscience might almost be, "whichever of competing theories the mass media plump for."

Not a bad working definition!

Lycus Briefings said...
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Lycus Briefings said...

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