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brb

brb has written 70 posts for The Berlin Review of Books

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.

A Modern Social History Classic

While a number of major surveys of European social history have been presented in recent decades, many of these are indebted to Western European perspectives and narratives. In his ‘A Social History of Twentieth-Century Europe’ (London: Routledge 2013), Béla Tomka, professor of history at the University of Szeged (Hungary), offers a modern synthesis, based on painstaking empirical data. As reviewer, Ferencz Laczó argues, the volume may be considered as a corrective to more established perspectives, as well as a contribution to post-communist attempts at revising inherited historical understandings especially regarding the supposedly notable successes of communist-era modernization. All in all, Laczó argues, Tomka’s book represents a towering achievement in the historiography of European social reality.

Another Internet is Possible! Or is it?

A pervasive techno-fix mentality, coupled with a nauseating utopianism, characterizes much of the discourse on new technologies and the internet. In his handbook ‘Social Media: A Critical Introduction’ (Sage 2014), Christian Fuchs offers a welcome dissenting view from the self-congratulatory navel-gazing of most new media pundits. Fuchs’ handbook, which is largely aimed at students, illustrates through many illuminating examples, discussions, and tables, that social media are imbricated in a fundamentally exploitative and oppressive political economy, in which one part of the nexus of exploitation has shifted from the mere consumer to the ‘prosumer’, and the other part towards the extreme exploitation of rightless workers in the various global electronics factories. Yet, writes reviewer Ingrid Hoofd, there remains a nagging suspicion that Fuchs’ stance of ‘critical optimism’, too, remains attached to the very logic of ‘branding’, which his he purports to criticize: if one of the ‘selling points’ of the handbook is its appeal to students to individually take a more critical stance, does this not obscure the fact that many social media are at base corporate entities, well beyond the control or influence of individual activists?

A Classic Statement of Logical Empiricism

The perception of logical empiricism and its influence on contemporary analytic philosophy is currently undergoing a re-assessment. The received view has been inculcated in generations of students through such influential works as A.J. Ayer’s ‘Language, Truth and Logic’ (1936). Yet the origins and gradual emergence of logical empricism as a philosophical movement are far more complex and extend well beyond the English-speaking world. A case in point is Eino Kaila’s ‘Human Knowledge’, which was first published in Finnish in 1939 and which has only now been translated into English. As BRB reviewer Adam Tuboly argues, the translation of Kaila’s book, which has been given the English subtitle ‘A Classic Statement of Logical Empiricism’, forces historians of analytic philosophy to rethink their assumptions — and to acknowledge Kaila as a thinker who demonstrates a remarkably systematic and comprehensive style.

Excellent Sheep, Excellent Shepherds?

In his book ‘Excellent Sheep’ (New York: Free Press 2014), William Deresiewicz offers a probing indictment of America’s top universities which, with few exceptions, turn young people into narrow-minded and career-oriented drones, who are more likely to pad their resumes in order to secure a job in finance than to cultivate intellectual growth or develop world-changing insights. The student-inspired title of Deresiewicz’s book (the term ‘Excellent Sheep’ is traced by Deresiewicz to a comment by a Yale student) is supplemented by two subtitles, joined together somewhat awkwardly with just an ampersand: ‘The Miseducation of the American Elite’ & ‘The Way to a Meaningful Life’. While this three-part title reflects the three main strands of the book, they do not always sit very well together. Thus, BRB reviewer Bruce Fleming argues, it is unclear what the search for a ‘meaningful life’ has to do with the curricula of elite universities and the alleged miseducation of the elites: Surely Deresiewicz does not want to suggest that there can be universal institutionalized ways for finding one’s true self and becoming the person one truly wants to be? We may all dream of being bohemians, but most of us aren’t cut out for it. And even for those of us who are, the quest for meaning can hardly be reduced to the problem of curriculum reform.

Chronicles of Brazil

Perhaps coincidentally, diplomats feature prominently among writers from ‘emerging’ countries such as Brazil and India. Yet unlike, say, Vikas Swarup’s ‘Q & A’ (better known through its movie adaptation ‘Slumdog Millionaire’), Edgard Telles Ribeiro’s recent novel ‘His Own Man’ (first published in Portuguese in 2010, and translated into English in 2014) does not let the — often messy — politics fade into the background of a human-interest story. ‘His Own Man’, writes BRB reviewer Julian Murphy, sometimes reads like a personal effort at coming to grips with how a country and a people can rapidly change its leaders and its values, yet calling the book a ‘personal’ account would do the book a disservice: It is also undoubtedly a contribution to a public record of a dark era — between 1960 and ca. 1985 — of South America’s history.

Work and Structure

Writer Wolfgang Herrndorf committed suicide in the summer of 2013, at age 48. He was best known for his bestselling novel “Tschick”, which garnered Herrndorf many literary accolades, even as he was diagnosed with a brain tumour shortly before its publication. Herrndorf documented his thoughts and the final years of his life in a blog, which has now been published as a book entitled “Arbeit und Struktur” (“Work and Structure”, Rowohlt, Berlin 2013). The title is derived from a comment by one of many doctors (Herrndorf, in his diary, resorts to referring them by numbers), who had recommended “work and structure” as a way of confronting fear and despair. Yet, as reviewer Frank Berzbach observes, no matter how depressing the diary’s entries are getting, at no point does Herrndorf allow his suffering to wrest control of his life from him: “This, indeed, is a reason to read his book: so as to maintain the upper hand, come what may. So as not to be driven to madness, or to escapism.”

Who Owns Germany?

‘Who owns Germany?’ What might look like a polemical question, intended to incite envy, is in fact a valid concern that merits attention from social scientists and policy-makers. On average, a German household owns wealth to the tune of more than two-hundred thousand Euros. But wealth is unevenly distributed — which is why half of the population owns barely 1.4 percent of total wealth, whereas two thirds of Germany’s wealth are in the hands of the top 10 percent. In his eponymous book, ‘Who Owns Germany?’ (Westend, Frankfurt 2014), Jens Berger traces the origins and the consequences of uneven wealth distribution, its hidden mechanisms and those profiteer from policies that continue to channel wealth from the bottom to the top. Throughout, writes reviewer Patrick Schreiner, Berger maintains a measured tone and displays a keen attention to detail and an awareness of the social realities — from the casualization of labour to the malfunctions of the international financial markets.

Crunch Time for Food Policy

How do we feed an ever growing world population in an environment of increasing scarcity? In their book ‘Food Policy and the Environmental Credit Crunch: From Soup to Nuts’ (London: Routledge 2014), investment bankers Julie Hudson and Paul Donovan liken the current overuse of the environment to the over-borrowing that ultimately led to the credit crunch in the global financial markets in 2008/09. Yet, argues reviewer Heiko Fritz, this perspective is ultimately limiting, and says more about the mindset of those trained to look at the world’s problems through the lens of financial markets, than about the challenges of food policy under conditions of environmental degradation. This is why, ultimately, the authors converge on the misguided conclusion that, as Fritz summarizes their views, “the hunt for technical efficiency is the most pressing problem of global food production”.

Churchill’s Bomb

Graham Farmelo, known as a biographer of physicist Paul Dirac, in his new book, ‘Churchill’s Bomb’, argues for a reassessment of Churchill’s role in British science policy. While not a scientist himself, Churchill drew inspiration from the work of writers such as H.G. Wells, speculating as early as 1924 that a bomb could be made, “no bigger than an orange….with the explosive power of tons of cordite”. When the possibility of actually building an atomic bomb came within reach, however, Churchill made various moves that ensured Britain’s exclusion from the American-led project to build the bomb. While, on one interpretation, Churchill allowed himself to be “fobbed off” by an evasive U.S. President Roosevelt, a fuller picture, as Farmelo makes clear, needs to take into account the various parties — individual and institutional, political and scientific — involved. In what reviewer Martin Underwood considers “a clear, lucid manner”, Farmelo reconstructs “Churchill’s often confused views on The Bomb and possible deployment”.