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Cultural Studies

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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.

Poetry and the Brain

When an award-winning novelist-translator and a renowned psychologist join forces to explore their common areas of interests, one can expect a wealth of interesting insights — and perhaps even answers to such questions as: How does poetry affect our thinking? Is poetical experience different from ‘ordinary’ experience? How does the brain make sense of poetical patterns in language? And, last but not least: Why do certain texts arouse aesthetic pleasure and what happens in the brain, when we feel the urge to read a poem again and again? In their recent book ‘Gehirn und Gedicht’ (The Brain and the Poem, Hanser Verlag, Munich 2011), poeta doctus Raoul Schrott and Berlin psychologist Arthur Jacobs explore these and other questions, aiming to offer an synthesis of contemporary neurolinguistic, evolutionary, and aesthetic research. And yet, says reviewer Hans-Dieter Gelfert, the result falls short of the professed goal of making sense of poetic experience from a neuroscientific perspective. For, nearly everything that is being said about the neurological responses to visual, musical or verbal stimuli in poetry applies to such stimuli in general, irrespective of their aesthetic quality. In the end, what fuses the various neuroscientific elements into the kind of poetic unity that gives rise to aesthetic enjoyment is something which the theoretical framework of the two authors cannot explain.

Right to the Olympic Village

Most visitors to London’s Olympic Park will need to enter through a narrow passageway next to Westfield Stratford City, a gigantic retail and entertainment venue. The Olympic park itself is not accountable to any of the London boroughs and councils within which it is located. Combine this decline of the idea of public space with the curious opening skit that featured ‘James Bond’ and the Queen, and the idea of the Olympic Games as a celebration of the human body and spirit takes on more than a whiff of, as Lewis Beardmore puts it in his review of David Harvey’s ‘Rebel Cities’ – ‘the sinister securitisation and spatial control surrounding the emplacement of the Olympic Games in East London’.

The Aesthetics of Evil

Love and Evil are the driving forces of most, if not all, plots of dramatic and fictional literature. Yet, in discussions of aesthetics, evil has often been given short shrift. In his ‘Ästhetik des Bösen’ (Beck, Munich 2010), Peter-André Alt embarks on an in-depth study of the aesthetics of evil. From the Biblical myths of Lucifer’s and Adam’s Fall, through the 19th-century’s fascination with the social construct of the ‘criminal mind’, to the genocidal horrors of the 20th century, Alt ploughs his way through (mainly literary) material of intimidating scope and completeness. Yet, writes reviewer Hans-Dieter Gelfert, Alt’s attempt to rectify the omission of evil in discussions of European literary history is hindered by a strangely parochial blindness to outside (esp. British) influences on Continental Europe’s fascination with the topic.

Rage, Time, and the Politico-Religious Revenge Banks

In his recent book ‘Rage and Time’ (originally published as ‘Zorn und Zeit’ in 2006), Peter Sloterdijk, best-known to the English-speaking world for his ‘Critique of Cynical Reason’, published in the 1980s, tells a compelling story of the mediations, exploitations, and translations of rage through, and into, the great religious and political ‘cosmologies’ of Western civilisation. ‘Rage and Time’, according to reviewer Francisco Klauser, is a powerfully written book about the sociopolitical ordering, coding, and accumulation of rage; a book which, in sum, acknowledges and investigates the role of rage as one of the driving forces of human history. However, while Sloterdijk’s narrative is rich in suggestive power, his analysis of the upcoming sociopolitical challenges in the 21st century remains essentially incomplete — the future of rage has yet to unfold.

The Fame Game

Every Friday morning, postmasters in the United States send out over a million copies of ‘US Weekly’ to subscribers. ‘US Weekly’ is only one of many periodicals that report, and sometimes fabricate, events in the lives of the rich and famous. Where does this cult of celebrity come from? Fred Inglis, in his ‘Short History of Celebrity’, traces the historical origins of celebrity in the modern sense to eighteenth-century London — according to Inglis, ‘the first city to construct itself as a city in a form that would prove recognizable to modernity’. Inglis’s narrative quickly moves from London’s aristocracy and the arcades of Paris to the money- and gossip-obsessed New York of the Gilded Age. Somewhat problematically, according to reviewer Alex Prescott-Couch, he extends his analysis of ‘supreme celebrities’ to the quintessential 20th-century dictators Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin. While he may have overshot the mark in this respect and while some attempts at conceptual disaggregation might have been in order, Inglis manages to draw the reader into tales of the rich and fabulous, while at the same providing much elegantly written material for a closer analysis of the phenomenon of celebrity.

Of Pencils and Pixels

Sonja Neef’s ‘Abdruck und Spur’ (‘Imprint and Trace’, 2008) offers a sweeping re-evaluation of the relationship of handwriting and technology. While the historical part of the book may be overambitious, insofar as it discusses even the evolutionary origins of handedness, reviewer Frank Berzbach applauds Neef for successfully defending her claim that ‘there is no final dichotomy between, on the one hand, printing as a mechanical, technical, or digital way of writing and, on the other hand, handwriting as an individual, unique, and singular trace’; instead, the two have been historically and systematically intertwined, and the Manual continues to survive in the Digital.

Where Techno Lives

After a much publicised boom in the 1990s, Berlin’s club culture has received comparatively little attention in recent years. However, as reviewer Norbert Niclauss writes, a new book by Tobias Rapp (“Lost and Sound”, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt 2009) shows that, despite its reduced ‘surface visibility’, the culture of techno music in Berlin is alive and well. Indeed, Niclauss argues, Rapp’s book should not only be of interest to aficionados of techno music, but also to cultural policy-makers, since the current flourishing of medium-sized clubs and venues can only be understood against the backdrop of the wholesale failure of earlier urban redevelopment efforts.