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Social & Political Studies

This category contains 23 posts

Knowledge in a Conspiratorial World

Do conspiracy theories merit belief? Of course not, or so a nascent consensus of political commentators tells us. But conspiracies do happen — think Watergate — so an outright dismissal of theories that do not fit with a given consensus might risk overlooking important facts. In his recent book ‘The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories’ (2014), philosopher Matthew Dentith — a self-professed ‘conspiracy theory theorist’, i.e. someone who researches belief in conspiracy theories (rather than proposing conspiracy theories himself) — tackles the thorny epistemological questions that emerge from the nexus of secrecy, ideology, and the social world. As BRB reviewer Ori Freiman summarizes the gist of Dentith’s argument, while some (or perhaps most) conspiracy theories are irrational, some conspiracies are rational, and we must therefore not dismiss a theory *only* because it invokes, or asserts, the existence of a conspiracy. Once we acknowledge that a belief in conspiracy theories can be rational, we can further investigate the existence of a conspiracy and the evidence the theory cites. If we succeed in making a tight connection between the conspirators and the events in question, we can consider the conspiracy theory in relation to other possible explanations. Dentith’s book, Freiman concludes, is a thoughtful exploration of the world of conspiracy theories, based on vivid examples from history and fantasy, and rigorously argued.

Dangerous Ideas

Is ‘cultural appropriation’ a pervasive injustice or merely a figment of the imagination? And when did it become ‘a thing’? And is it justified for a prominent white (=non-minority) writer to dismiss those who argue that minorities should be able to tell their own stories, without fear of being drowned out by establishment writers who use such stories as fodder for their next novel? BRB contributor Yen-Rong Wong takes an encounter with Lionel Shriver at this year’s Brisbane Writers Festival as an occasion to reflect on these and other identity-related issues. As she argues: “Identity is important, and yes, making sure that we don’t pigeon hole ourselves into one thing, or into what others want us to be is also important. But it’s easy to say that ‘Asian isn’t an identity’ when you haven’t experienced what it’s like to have to confront racism (both casual and overt) in your everyday life.”

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.

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.

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?

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.

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”.

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.