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brb

brb has written 60 posts for The Berlin Review of Books

Reputation and Disenchantment

In a world that is more and more connected by electronic and other social media, questions of reputation and its management become ever more important, even to individuals who previously would not have thought of themselves as being in the public limelight. A recent volume, ‘La Réputation’ (2013), edited by Gloria Origgi and published by the Centre Edgar-Morin, explores this topic from an interdisciplinary perspective. Composed of twelve articles, ranging from psychology and economics to philosophy and sociology, the volume aims at a ‘disenchantment’ of the elusive notion of reputation. As reviewer Thomas Mollanger notes, though the volume engages little with the extensive body of reputation research in the English-speaking world, it nonetheless succeeds in highlighting and analyzing the centrality of reputation to a range of social phenomena.

Unifying Historical Perspectives

Greg Frost-Arnold’s first book, ‘Carnap, Tarski and Quine at Harvard’ (Open Court, Chicago 2013), has as its subject matter a manuscript by Rudolf Carnap that was recently discovered in the University of Pittsburgh’s Archives of Scientific Philosophy. The original German manuscript is about the conversations of Carnap, Tarski and Quine (sometimes featuring Goodman) which took place at Harvard in the academic year 1940-41. That year marks a decisive point in the evolution of Carnap’s thought on semantics (one year later, he published his Introduction to Semantics). As Carnap and Quine reported in their intellectual autobiography, the dispute about analyticity played a crucial role in that highly productive year. ‘Carnap, Tarski and Quine at Harvard’, argues BRB reviewer Adam Tamas Tuboly, is a highly elegant edition and commentary of Carnap’s notes, claiming just as much as is warranted on the basis of the manuscript and other relevant texts. Its scholarly assumptions are carefully formulated and manage to unify three co-existing historiographical strategies: narrative, argumentative and micro-historical. The micro-history, in this case, consists in the conversations between Carnap, Tarski and Quine, yet the overall story fits with an emerging bigger narrative concerning the history of logical empiricism and analytic philosophy.

Democracy in Retreat?

Recent trends — from the ‘Tea Party’ movement in the U.S. to anti-election protests in Thailand — call into question the standard assumption that, as nations develop economically, they will necessarily become more democratic. In his book ‘Democracy in Retreat’, Joshua Kurlantzick describes what he sees as the revolts of the global middle classes, which have led to a worldwide decline of representative government. Writing from Bangkok only days before a highly contested national election, BRB reviewer Soraj Hongladarom calls for a ‘Fifth Wave’ of democratization, one which would offer the current disillusioned middle class an incentive to return to the fold of democracy.

On Jesting

“A man of great wit, and little acumen, or penetration, can never succeed in jesting. Such a man proves always intolerable, with his facetious conceits, to judicious persons. His jests are merely playing on words, or puns, or allegorical, metaphorical and tropical modes of speech, and the like kinds of wit, without applying them with any acumen or penetration: and in that case he must fall into the insipid. Without acumen, a man cannot possibly guard against false thoughts: and if in jesting he thinks without acumen, he overlooks the differences of objects, and in that case may easily, by a false conceit, represent to himself a coincidence in things which greatly differ.”

Vehemence and Doubt

What intellectual or moral use does it have to think about a writer’s life? This question becomes all the more salient when — as in the case of Fyodor Dostoevsky — it concerns an author, whose life has been systematically obscured for political reasons. Dostoevsky started well enough, from the later, official point of view. He debuted with the sentimental, socially conscious novel Poor Folk (1846), became a member of the Petrashevsky socialist circle, and suffered for his politics during his subsequent Siberian imprisonment and enforced military service. What the Soviets could not countenance, however, was the writer’s infuriating, post-Siberian right-wing turn, the erstwhile socialist dreamer becoming an ardent royalist and defender of personal responsibility. Thus, finding out about Dostoevsky became harder than ever during the Soviet era. The University of Toronto’s Slavic scholar Peter Sekirin, in compiling and translating around one hundred, rare first-hand accounts of Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky’s life and career, attempted to fill this gap and identify as many previously suppressed voices as possible. Recently reissued, ‘The Dostoevsky Archive’ is the result of this painstaking effort. It is, writes BRB reviewer Andre van Loon, quite literally ‘the product of a liberal impulse’.

Optimists Beware!

Geoengineering — the idea that humans should deliberately engage in planetary-level interference with the Earth’s natural systems, in an attempt to partially reverse anthropogenic climate change — is a contentious idea, which nonetheless has quickly spread in policy circles and in the public’s imagination. Partly this is the result of the dismal failure of the global community to agree on, and enact, mitigation measures; partly, it is fuelled by a desire to see human beings as ‘in control’. Adding to several recent books on geoengineering, Clive Hamilton in ‘Earthmasters’ (Yale UP 2013) surveys the types of technologies being talked about under such labels as ‘solar radiation management’ and ‘carbon dioxide removal’, and inquires into the reasons for our collective inaction on climate mitigation. While much of the terrain has been covered elsewhere, reviewer Rose Cairns argues, Hamilton succeeds in bringing to the fore the issue of the enormous scale of the infrastructures that would be required to deploy any of the geoengineering techniques currently being explored.

The Humanities are not your Enemy!

In a polemical piece published in ‘The New Republic’ last month, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker made ‘an impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians’: ‘Science is Not Your Enemy’! Gloria Origgi, in this exclusive contribution to The Berlin Review of Books, rebuts Pinker’s curious misrepresentations of the current state of the humanities. Given that Pinker’s piece comes on the heels of similar attacks from scientists against philosophy — and in light of the decline of support for humanities research and liberal education around the world — Origgi also asks the question: Why this denigration of a lively tradition of intellectual tradition? Why this attempt to reignite the infamous ‘culture wars’? Why now?

After the Great East Japan Earthquake

Two and a half years after the tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan in March 2011, a number of books have appeared which explore the impact of the events on Japanese politics and policy-making. In ‘After the Great East Japan Earthquake’, published by the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, based in Copenhagen, a number of contributors analyze those policy areas most likely to be affected by the tragedy – politics, economics, energy, climate, agriculture and food safety – and describe how the sectors have been affected and what the implications are for the future. This adds up to a useful set of additional perspectives, according to reviewer Hansley A. Juliano, in this review originally written for the LSE Review of Books.

The Culture of the “As If”

The last few years have witnessed a resurgence of political mass movements and revolts — ranging from the West’s ‘Occupy’ movement to the Arab Spring and recent protest movements in Turkey and Egypt. Participation in these movements is heavily skewed towards the urban, educated classes. Two recent books — one in German, the other in French — approach this phenomenon at a theoretical level, though from different disciplinary perspectives. As reviewer Thorsten Botz-Bornstein describes in his essay review of Wolfgang Kraushaar’s ‘The Revolt of the Educated’ (Hamburg 2012) and Roland Gori’s ‘The Impostor Factory’ (Paris 2013), both books identify a dissatisfaction with a particular style of governance and formal-instrumental style of rationality as one of the reasons behind these protests. Whereas Kraushaar gives an empirical-historical reconstruction of the figure of the “new global protester”, Gori — in a manner vaguely reminiscent of Jacques Ellul — analyzes the psychological potency of various techniques of ‘normalization’. Together, both books amount to a powerful critique of the social and political impostures that are being performed through false abstractions and misguided claims to universality.

How West Point and Annapolis are like East Berlin

At a commencement address at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, last month, U.S. President Obama hit all the right notes: he complimented the military on remaining “the most trusted institution in America”, he vowed to eradicate sexual assault, which is rife in the armed forces, and he encouraged the graduates to “live with integrity and speak with honesty and take responsibility and demand accountability”. Of the military academies themselves, and their system of values — perhaps best expressed in the class motto “Surrender to Nothing” — Obama said “our nation needs them now more than ever”. Recent books, such as Lance Betros’s ‘Carved from Granite: West Point Since 1902′, tend to provide the historical background narrative to such rhetoric. But do the military academies deliver? Do they deserve their unique status as federally funded institutions of higher learning, for the purposes of training military officers? Bruce Fleming, Professor of English at Annapolis, begs to differ. The academies encourage a misguided sense of entitlement, drain public funds, and do not deliver intellectually. Worst of all, they are about as historically outdated and oblivious to their anachronistic existence as East Berlin in the year 1989.