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brb has written 79 posts for The Berlin Review of Books

Photography and the Art of Chance

How does photography deal with, and co-opt, the element of chance that comes with any engagement with the material world around us? In his book ‘Photography and the Art of Chance’, Robin Kelsey brilliantly interweaves the history of photography with a broader history of art and an intellectual history of chance. This interdisciplinary approach helps Kelsey sidestep certain problematic moves in the historiography of art, which often result in a certain exceptionalism about photography as being qualitatively unlike other art forms. As reviewer Lauren Kroiz argues, Kelsey makes a persuasive case for the centrality of chance to the history of photography, starting from its early days and ending with a critique of our current enthusiasm for digital manipulation and posed photography, be it in the works of Cindy Sherman or in the — nowadays ubiquitous — “selfies” of individual consumers.

Phallacies of the Phree Market

Why does the phenomenon of ‘phishing’ — getting others to act against their self-interest, instead exploiting them (or their gullibility) to further one’s own agenda — emerge with such high degree of reliability wherever ‘free markets’ reign? In their book ‘Phishing for Phools’, economists George Akerlof and Robert Shiller argue that phishing strikes at the very heart of economics, by calling into question our capacity to rational decision-making and thereby undermining the very idea of ‘homo oeconomicus’. What explains phishing, Akerlof and Shiller suggest is a fundamental mechanism that connects psychological and informational malfunctions in modern economics: namely, the human tendency to engage in, and fall for, storytelling. Drawing on a wide range of examples — from the economics of slot machines, to health clubs, lobbying, junk bonds and finanical crises — this astonishingly witty book offers insight and diversion for economists and laypersons alike. However, as BRB reviewer Gabor Istvan Biro concludes, new trends in economics such as evolutionary economics and economic anthropology — neither of which is discussed in ‘Phishing for Phools’ — hold out the promise of making sense of phishing in a potentially more rigorous and unified way.

The Dream of Algorithms: Our Calculated Existences

Most visibly for Google, Facebook, and Amazon, but perhaps more importantly for banks, insurance companies, and major corporations, “Big Data” provides a new paradigm for organizing information, to which the use of algorithms has become ever more central. In his book ‘What are Algorithms Dreaming Of: Our Lives in Times of Big Data’ (‘A quoi rêvent les algorithmes: Nos vies à l’heure des big data’, Seuil, Paris 2015), Dominique Cardon aims to show how these new computing techniques are revolutionizing our society. Through new ways of classifying information, personalized advertising, product recommendation, and the track of consumers’ behaviour and interested, large-scale calculating infrastructures are trying to interfere ever more intimately in individuals’ lives. Yet far from being merely technical tools, algorithms bring with them an emergent political project. As reviewer Thorsten Botz-Bornstein notes, there is a sinister paradox here. People are by and large suspicious of centralized powers, be it the power of politicians, journalists, or unions; they (profess to) abhor being classified into broad categories, believing instead that their individuality fits into no “box.” Yet, these very same individuals allow themselves to become locked into the bubble of algorithms – partly because this new algorithmic authoritarianism has successfully been camouflaged as non-authoritarianism, partly because they are impressed with the speed and the effects of algorithmic coordination.

World in a Bag

Dubbed a mere fashion accessory, a handbag is anything but. Deep in its depths lies a fascinating world of secrets, dreams, and — perhaps more mundanely — everyday items and tools for getting along in the modern (esp. urban) world. In his book ‘Le Sac: Un Petit Monde d’Amour’ (JC Lattès, 2011), Jean-Claude Kaufmann explains why this is so and what role a handbag plays in making and remaking women’s identities. Through the life stories of women, he pieces together — from the many things we toss into our bags — an overall account that vindicates the handbag as a ‘privileged place’. As reviewer Giovanna Colombetti argues, behind the sometimes mundane observations lies a broader story of how people manipulate and relate to objects in order to support and structure their affective life. This makes the book not only a joy to read, but may even lead its readers on a journey of self-discovery.

Explicating Explication: Carnap’s Ideal

Carnap’s ideal of explication has become a key concept in contemporary philosophy, especially within the analytic tradition, and lies at the heart of a method of analysis that has sometimes been placed in opposition to various forms of naturalism. A new collection of essays, edited by Pierre Wagner, explores a range of issues in connection with ‘Carnap’s Ideal of Explication and Naturalism’. The essays in the book may be roughly divided into three parts: first, an exploration of the historical context of Carnap’s philosophy; second, a set of detailed case studies concerning explication and its evaluation; third, a critical assessment of recent claims (and counter-claims) concerning the dialectical nature of Carnap’s notion of explication. While not all essays aim for the same level of detail or historical depth, taken together, writes BRB reviewer Adam Tuboly, the essays point to fruitful new lines of research in Carnap studies and in the history of analytic philosophy more generally.

The Realization of Something New: The Life of the World to Come

Vladimir Sergeyevich Solovyov (1853-1900) is widely considered one of Russian philosophy’s most ambitious figures. His magnum opus, ‘The Justification of the Moral Good’, ranges from a characterization of humans as spiritual creatures to discussion of the historical development of our socially situated consciousness, and on to questions concerning the morality of war and the moral organization of humanity. Contemporary readers may reject, or even mock, Solovyov’s musings, not least on account of their unabashed Christian roots. But, as Andre van Loon argues in his review of a new (and refreshingly unfussy) translation of Solovyov’s book by Thomas Nemeth, closer inspection of his Solovyov’s writings reveals a sophistication that eludes his critics and may vindicate him as ‘cleverer, more insightful and spiritual than his critics’.

Cultural Curmudgeons

Recently, a string of authors have lamented the state of American university education, including the limited aspirations of college students. Instead of pursuing, as William Deresiewicz called it, “passionate weirdness”, students major in applied subjects such as business studies, enter the financial sector and management consultancies, quickly leaving a more critical engagement with the status quo behind. What’s striking for the student of cultural history is the fact that every quarter-century or so this sentiment resurfaces, with professors expressing extreme frustration with how unlike them their students are, how docile and unquestioning. Tracing a trajectory from Horkheimer and Adorno’s ‘Dialektik der Aufklärung’ (1947) via Bloom’s ‘The Closing of the American Mind’ (1987) to more recent examples such as Deresiewiciz’s ‘Excellent Sheep’ (2014), BRB critic Bruce Fleming analyses this historical phenomenon. What he finds is that reading all these eerily similar books back to back suggests larger truths that no individual author can more than hint at, truths about the position of cultural critics and their ultimate inability to change that culture.

How to Destroy Europe, in 8 Easy Steps

The Eurozone, and the larger European Union within which it is embedded, finds itself at risk of turning into a project of safeguarding the wealth and status of the select few — what Jürgen Habermas has characterized as a ‘hybrid actor’ consisting of European institutions and private investors and financial conglomerates. Private banks, mostly French and German, were bailed out in 2010, at the expense of the public, and countries such as Greece found themselves unable to meet their financial obligations. But just because a country hasn’t paid up, doesn’t mean that it hasn’t paid a price. European leaders, argues BRB editor Axel Gelfert, must start valuing people, not numbers.

A Muslim’s letter to a Jewish friend

“You have served as an example that many Jews and Muslims in Jerusalem are now much closer to an Orient defined by the fraternal coexistence of their religions than are their political leaders. A closer examination not only of the history but also of current events in my home country Morocco has shown me that this unbiased and open-minded interaction between Jews and Muslims is actually the rule. It is the political conflict in the Middle East that paints a distorted picture far removed from reality.”

Religion in America

Following in the footsteps of Alexis de Tocqueville, Denis Lacorne’s “Religion in America” brings a French sensibility to bear on social and political issues in the United States. But does Lacorne’s analysis measure up to the ambition of his predecessor? In some sense, Lacorne’s book offers an even richer dose of Frenchness by dedicating considerable also to other French writers. Lacorne distinguishes two concurrent narratives: a secular narrative derived from the philosophy of the Enlightenment, and a romantic/’Neopuritan’ narrative, which sees the establishment of the Puritan colonies in New England as the culmination of the movement that started with the Reformation. Yet, neo-Messianic overtones remain to the present day — one need only think of the message of ‘hope’, with which Obama won his first presidential election. On the whole, writes reviewer Hans-Dieter Gelfert, Lacorne’s book is a useful source of historical information and a well-balanced assessment of its subject matter, even if does not provides as close a look at the religious heart of America as one might have wished.