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Social & Political Studies

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Essay Review: Greening Berlin

In his book ‘Greening Berlin’ (2013), Jens Lachmund contributes to the growing genre of the social studies of environmental science and governance. Focusing on Berlin’s biotope-protection policy, Lachmund’s work provides an analysis of the co-emerging of ecology and urban environmental planning. Lachmund’s presentation of empirical material and context as well as his line or argument are certainly compatible with his objective to demonstrate the co-production of science, politics and urban nature. Yet, as BRB reviewers Ingmar Lippert and Josefine Raasch argue in this essay, review Lachmund’s approach is not uncontroversial and without problems. For one, conflict seems rather marginal in Lachmund’s analysis of the production of environmental information. His analysis focuses on the version of greening that wins. Another criticism relates to the tension emerging from Lachmann tendency to write himself out of the text and the very real need to reflect on his own knowledge production. Yet, all in all, Lachmund presents a comprehensive and ‘systematic analysis of the development of urban nature conservation in one German city’, Berlin — one that has played a cetral role in constituting environmentalist publics and attempting to deal with the way in which city, humans, and nature co-constitute each other.

The Changing Faces of STS

Four editions and counting: our BRB reviewer Gabor Istvan Biro takes the publication of the new edition of the ‘Handbook of Science and Technology Studies’ as on occasion to reflect on the changing character of the research field better known under its acronym ‘STS’. Whereas the first edition was very much programmatic, in that it set the tone for the consolidation of STS as an academic field and its methodological proliferation, the current — fourth — edition, with its thirty-six chapters, provides a snapshot of a multi-faceted ‘living’ interdisciplinary entity, rather than presenting a thoroughly pre-visioned and planned state-of-the-art narrative.

The New French Right

A growing number of French intellectuals, from Alain Finkielkraut to Jean-Pierre Le Goff and Michel Houellebecq, are dissociating themselves from liberalism, which they consider to be undergoing a crisis, and a few are openly aligning themselves with what one might call the ‘New French Right’. BRB reviewer Thorsten Botz-Bornstein examines two recent books in this vein:
‘The New Children of the Century’ (Les Nouveaux Enfants du siècle) by Alexandre Devecchio and Bérénice Levet’s ‘Twilight of the Progressive Idols’ (Crepuscule des idoles progressistes). Where Devecchio openly declares his sympathies for a new generation of right-wing activists and thinkers, whom he believes have little in common with the older Le Pen generation, Levet takes herself to be defending originally progressive Enlightenment ideals and reinvents many points that international critics of neoliberal education have been working on for years. Yet both books suffer from serious oversimplifications. Devecchi laments that cultural liberalism was the Trojan horse of the free circulation of capital, and Levet speaks likewise of a ‘tacit pact between cultural leftism and economic liberalism’. Yet such connections are merely asserted — and reflect a willful ignorance of the far more complex relationship between cultural and economic liberalisms and freedoms. Instead of obsessively fighting against liberalism, it would be more constructive and also logically cogent to fight against what Gilles Lipovetsy has called “hedonist capitalism” — yet such an analysis would require more depth and fewer polemical distractions.

Life, ‘Technics’, and the Decline of the West

With the unexpected resurgence of ‘völkisch’ thinking in German politics in recent months, and a concomitant revival of the old antagonism between ‘culture’ and ‘civilisation’, it may be high time to re-examine the philosophical sources of such thinking. The recent reissue of Oswald Spengler’s ‘Man and Technics’ (first published in 1932 as ‘Der Mensch und die Technik’) is a good occasion to reflect not only on Spengler’s dark vision of history and life, but also on the celebration of martial heroism, which — in the age of weaponized populism and American-style ‘Trumpism’ — seems once again so eerily familiar. ‘Man and Technics’, argues BRB reviewer Ian James Kidd, has many things in common with Spengler’s more well-known ‘The Decline of the West’ –- its brooding character, grand ambition, and agonistic vision of life. But there is also, underneath that, something different. For, only when the depth of ‘technics’ is properly grasped can the ‘soul of man’ be set free — or so Spengler suggests in his plea for a genuine ‘philosophy of life’, fuelled by the release of vast energies and power. ‘Man and Technics’ describes a restlessly stirring ‘will-to-power’ that ‘embraces the world’ in the ‘gigantic power of its technical processes’. Sleepless factories, roaring furnaces, tireless production lines –- all of these show the on-going manifestation of ‘technics’, the dynamic, agonistic force that Spengler conceived as a metaphysical force. There is, then, in ‘Man and Technics’, a rich (if deeply problematic) resonance with deeper currents in German intellectual history, including those that aligned themselves with the most reactionary and destructive political forces. Engaging with these tendencies, without thereby endorsing them, may be unavoidable, lest ignorance of the technological mediation of political hubris breed intellectual complacency.

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.