// archives

Cultural Studies

This category contains 14 posts

Love in the Time of Swarms

What sort of life has digital technology given us? The techno-utopians of Silicon Valley claim to have the answer: connectivity — the ‘neutral’ fact of creating links between nodes in a network — has the potential to transform and improve every aspect of society, from economics to politics and culture. In a series of recent books, Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han, who teaches cultural studies at the Berlin University of the Arts, has explored a diametrically opposed vision of digitally mediated societies: The vanishing, in the digital age, of established norms of privacy has not led to the promised condition of transparency and openness, but has only furthered neoliberalism’s project of surveillance and control, while the constant demand for self-improvement and an entrepreneurial notion of the self has given rise to a pandemic of existential fatigue. In his two most recent translations, ‘In the Swarm: Digital Prospects’ (2017, original German 2013) and ‘The Agony of Eros’ (2017 [2012]), Han turns his eye to the digital terrain of contemporary social relations, in politics as well as at an interpersonal level. And in both cases, the promised means of transformation turns out to be a very real hindrance: In politics, digital connectivity does not facilitate, but more often than not precludes, the establishment of meaningful political collectives; likewise, the ubiquitous availability of pornographic images does not liberate sexuality, but rather impedes intimacy. Yet, as reviewer James Daniel concludes, Han’s incisive criticism of boilerplate techno-utopianism raises a thorny question: How can we effectively condemn the supremacy of the digital without at the same time appealing, at least implicitly, to technophobia?

Vanishing Points of Representation: How They Change and Why

How does science manage to represent the world around us? Beyond the abstract question of how scientific theories represent the world, in recent years the material practices and the important role of formats and media have come into full view. More than twenty years ago, the volume ‘Representation in Scientific Practice’ (MIT Press, 1990) did much to bring out the material side of scientific representation as a process. Now, the original editors, together with a team of younger-generation scholars in science and technology studies, have returned to the question of representation in their ‘Representation in Scientific Practice Revisited’ (MIT Press, 2014). An important new dimension: the digital processing and representation of data. While there may not be, in the end, such a thing as a unified notion of ‘scientific representation’ simpliciter, and hence, as BRB reviewer Gabor Istvan Biro argues, the exact location of the ‘vanishing points’ of the discourse on representation may not be found in this volume, it nonetheless has much to offer in terms of insight into how and why scientists struggle with scientific representation in the digital era.

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.

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.

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?

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.