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Social & Political Studies

This category contains 16 posts

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.

After the Great East Japan Earthquake

Two and a half years after the tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan in March 2011, a number of books have appeared which explore the impact of the events on Japanese politics and policy-making. In ‘After the Great East Japan Earthquake’, published by the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, based in Copenhagen, a number of contributors analyze those policy areas most likely to be affected by the tragedy – politics, economics, energy, climate, agriculture and food safety – and describe how the sectors have been affected and what the implications are for the future. This adds up to a useful set of additional perspectives, according to reviewer Hansley A. Juliano, in this review originally written for the LSE Review of Books.

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.

Can the Market Speak?

The market, we are told, has moods and desires, is ‘jittery’ and ‘sends a message’. We are told to listen and anticipate its every move, preempting adverse ‘verdicts of the market’ through shrewd political decision-making. In his short (81-page) essay, ‘Can the Market Speak?’, Campbell Jones investigates the conceptual assumptions that underlie the idea that the market has intentions, consciousness, and the ability to speak to us. Yet, argues reviewer Mark Bergfeld, by solely focussing on the personification of the markets, Jones reveals a contradiction in capital’s attempt to paint the markets as behaving rationally: The supposed rational actors inside of the markets are themselves guided by “the invisible hand of the market”. In other words, underlying the very rationality of the market one finds irrationality and superstition.

Participate!

In ‘The Pale King’ (posthumously published in 2011), David Foster Wallace wrote: ‘This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do. I can’t think anyone really believes that today’s so-called “information society” is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.’ Today, this silence more often than not is frequently interrupted by hortatory slogans and demands for participation: ‘Do you participate? If not, why not? You should get involved, make a contribution, let them know what you think. Be part of something! It’ll be collaborative and democratic. And fun, too!’ Taking the recent publication of Claire Bishop’s ‘Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship’ (Verso 2012) as his starting point, reviewer Richard Martin discusses the historical shifts in the participatory dimension of modern art. Whereas in the early decades of the 20th century participation was inextricably linked with political commitment — not always for the better — contemporary participatory art often involves little risk and few dangers.

A Tradition Uncovered

Whereas most historians and commentators have thought of the history of Hungarian philosophy as a history of the reception of Western ideas, a new book by Tamas Demeter sets out to identify a distinctively ‘Hungarian’ strand within twentieth-century philosophy in Hungary. What gives Hungarian thought its distinctive flavour, Demeter argues, is a keen awareness that many of the most pressing philosophical problems are deeply connected to problem of society and sociality. So thoroughgoing is this strand that one might plausible speak of ‘Hungarian sociologism’ (by analogy with ‘German idealism’ and ‘British idealism’). As reviewer Akos Sivado argues, the book succeeds in establishing “a framework that provides the interpretational basis for a coherent narrative of twentieth-century intellectual life” in Hungary and, as such, contributes to a continuation of the very tradition it identifies.

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’.

A Plea for Multireligious Self-Confidence

Nilüfer Göle’s book “Interpénétrations: L’Islam et l’Europe”, recently translated as “Islam in Europe: The Lure of Fundamentalism and the Allure of Cosmopolitanism”, makes a strong case that Islam must be acknowledged as having become part of the fabric of European modernity. As reviewer Mohammed Khallouk points out, the experience and lifestyle of a generation of young Muslim women in Europe occupies a central place in Göle’s argument. While the values they adopt in their personal lives may differ from those of their (non-Muslim) peers, their non-confrontational fusion of Western modernity and Muslim spirituality showcases what a self-confident multireligious Europe might look like.