Sunday, March 13, 2011

If It's March It Must Be Lanzarote

Creature of habit that I am, this month means a getaway to somewhere hot and sunny. The heat is for my better half's arthritis, the sun is for my ageing flesh. It also means an opportunity for some light reading that can't be done on the train for fear of ostracism. I can still remember the confused looks that The 120 Days of Sodom drew from the women who get on at Rush & Lusk (I told them it was research). In retrospect, I should have turned the book upside down or on its side from time to time, so that it seemed like I was looking at pictures. Never mind. I'll do that when I take Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition to work.

Conversations with Manuel Castells, by Manuel Castells and Martin Ince

I doubt that this book would have shocked anyone on the train, come to think of it. They're pretty broad-minded in Drogheda. The soft-focus photo of Castells on the cover has a lurid, vaselined-lens look about it but you won't find anything too erotic inside, unless you get off on discussions about the structure and development of grassroots organizations in urban environments. I do, of course, which is why I had to take this book on holiday.

The book came out in 2003, so there's a dated feel to some of the conversations, and Castells has published a couple of important books in the meantime, such as The Network Society and Communication Power. These interviews were conducted just after the publication of The Internet Galaxy and so is influenced by that, but the focus of Castells's work has been fairly steady over the past 15 to 20 years, so we get here both a retrospective of his theories and a snapshot of his thought in development. The opening interview deals with Castells's personal life and career, offering some interesting insights into some of the motivations behind his thought and work (for one thing, I'd really like to know more about how Pierre Bourdieu attempted to destroy Castells professionally). Subsequent chapters deal with the role that Castells sees for new technologies in the organization of social power, how individuals and groups engage in the cultural construction of meaning, the distinction between politics and power, and the importance of information and knowledge in shaping the world we live in. The seventh of the eight conversations presents a sort of guided tour of Castells's world. Castells has lived, worked, and engaged in research in a variety of countries, so Ince asks him to give his considered opinion of how he sees the world's various regions taking shape in the Information Age. Castells opens by conceding that the Middle East is one of the few regions he does not know well, and given that this interview took place in early 2002, this is the conversation that has aged least well. Not that Castells makes any imprudent forecasts—he generally dislikes doing so in any case—but so much has happened since then that it makes more sense to look at Castells's more recent works and interviews to get a sense of his ideas on this topic.

All in all an easy read and a nice book to start your holiday with. :-)

Thinking in Systems: A Primer, by Donella H. Meadows

It's been at least two decades since I read Norbert Wiener's ground-breaking and eye-wateringopening Cybernetics, and the only other encounter with Systems Theory I've had was the Theory, Culture and Society special issue on the work of Niklas Luhmann a decade ago. Meadows was lead author of the book Limits to Growth (30-year update here), a MacArthur Foundation "genius," and a Pulitzer Prize nominee, so I figured I ought to up (or at least update) my game and get to grips with the principles of systems thinking as it is applied today (as opposed to in Wiener's day).

Meadows died before this book was finished, but there's enough here to provide a not-too-strenuous introduction to the basics. I could have done without the diagrams, which, if anything, were unhelpful and more confusing than the text. The introductory chapters perform the same function as those in Wiener's book, outlining the main ideas behind systems thinking and giving a few theoretical examples. Later chapters here explore the unusual ways that systems can behave, identify common real-world applications of systems thinking, how to spot systemic traps and opportunities (Bounded Rationality, The Tragedy of the Commons, Drift to Low Performance, Competitive Exclusion, Systemic Resilience), and how to intervene in systems and identify leverage points in a system. One of the significant caveats Meadows points out is that there's always a danger of misrecognizing or misidentifying a system at work, particularly when it comes to knowing where a system begins and ends—what feedback loops exist, how they work, and whether they themselves participate in or constitute another system in their own right—so it strikes me that a real-world application of systems thinking needs to be constantly subject to revision. All the same, systems thinking constitutes a useful way of reconceptualizing, or, at least, offering new perspectives on, a range of issues, whether it's social hierarchies, struggles between social classes over resources, political campaigns, or the more standard use and exploitation of resources.

One of my most enjoyable reads in recent years was John Gerassi's Talking with Sartre (reviewed here), notable for its honesty, humour, and love of its subject. This first volume of Gerassi's "authorized" biography of Sartre is in much the same vein and clearly draws on the same conversations, even though this book was published first. Gerassi is unrelenting in his criticism of Sartre's faults and failings and yet, for all that, it is clear that he has a genuine love and admiration for Sartre, a man he knew intimately and with profound attachment.

According to Gerassi, although he was tasked with writing Sartre's official biography, he felt unable to do so since it was impossible to improve on Sartre's own account of his childhood in Words and because Sartre had given some suggestion that he might write a follow-up, dealing with his later life. It was only with the publication of Annie Cohen-Solal's "objective" biography of Sartre in 1981 that Gerassi then felt free to give the world his "subjective" but nonetheless more accurate Biography.

Much of the book is, in actuality, an account of Gerassi's own dealings with Sartre. In a slight book (a couple of hundred pages), details of Sartre's early years take up no more than half the text (at a guesstimate). But the book is none the worse for that. Much of the ground has already been covered by Sartre himself. Instead, what we get are interrogations by Gerassi of Sartre about episodes from his childhood, anecdotes of meetings with Sartre, de Beauvoir and their circle, and a great deal of background information. All of which makes the book much more likeable. I've no idea whether there will be a second volume dealing with Sartre's middle and later years (this one gets us up to the end of the Second World War); it will require vast amounts of research, I would imagine, but also be much meatier in terms of dealing with Sartre's philosophical and political development. I do hope Gerassi is up to it, because this is a delightful and enjoyable work that presents us with a three-dimensional character, a man flawed in so many ways and yet in so many ways also admirable. And some of the anecdotes, such as the account of Sartre's meeting with Marcuse, render the book a gem in its own right as a memoir. Well worth getting hold of it if you can.

Described as a "no-holds barred exposé of the financial profiteering and ambiguous ethics that pervade the world of humanitarian aid," Linda Polman's book is really only a superficial skimming over the surface of the humanitarian aid business, mainly based on her journalistic experiences in Rwanda, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and a couple of other war zones. She explains how humanitarian aid gets diverted by corruption, how it is used by those engaged in war and genocide to advance their cause, and how the purported neutrality and impartiality of aid organizations plays out on the ground. In some cases, we discover, aid organizations act as, at best, logistical backup to the consolidation of power, at worst, as collaborators in genocide. A moral dilemma faces aid agencies, she argues, yet they refuse to deal with it: Is doing something always better than doing nothing?

It isn't a question that Polman feels the need to answer herself. And one suspects that it's a question that many of those working for aid agencies deal with on a regular basis. What I would have preferred to have seen from this book was an examination of corruption within humanitarian organizations, of the politicization of humanitarian aid not just by warlords and genocidaires but by the UN, by foreign governments, by bureaucrats and administrators. As you'd expect, Polman touches on all of these—the journalistic approach to book writing seems to be to pile example after example into the text without generating any depth of analysis or sense of nuance (and I should make the observation here that this book contains a lot of unattributed statements)—but her main focus is on the consequences of all these factors as they impact on the purported recipients of aid, the people she encountered at the sharp end, as it were. Not that this isn't important. Some of the details she provides will turn your stomach and disgust you with the entire process of humanitarian aid. But I'd be surprised if anyone reading this review or Polman's book hadn't already developed some cynicism about Bono.

There's a handy guide to "Aidspeak" at the back of the book that readers will enjoy. It could almost stand as an appendix to Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary. For example:

complex emergency: A situation that involves war, displacement, sickness, and hunger simultaneously in one place. Some say it is nothing more than a label aid organizations attach to emergencies "to cover up the fact that they don't know what's going on."

diversion: Euphemism for making aid money and supplies disappear. They are "diverted" to another destination, such as someone's trouser pocket.

"never again": From events in Darfur, northern Iraq, Rwanda, and Bosnia, we can deduce that "never again" should be interpreted to mean not "never again genocide" but "never again an attempt to exterminate the Jewish people by Nazis."

I think Bierce has the edge, mind you.

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