Wednesday, January 30, 2013

30: Kathy Peiss' Hope in a Jar

Some books on feminism and women's culture make me really psyched to be a lady.  Some make me feel like a grumpy old stick in the mud, grousing about too-short skirts and a lack of self-respect among the younger generation.  Unfortunately, Hope in a Jar belongs in the latter category.

I'm not trying to say that it's an unnecessary or uninteresting book - it's quite the opposite, actually.  Hope in a Jar is a history of the American cosmetics industry "from the bottom up," and Peiss takes pains to show how women and minorities actively participated in and shaped beauty culture and the cosmetics industry that grew out of it.  It's the first book to take this industry seriously by looking at it from this perspective; even better, Peiss is an American Studies scholar, so she does that thing where she tells you a lot about both her little slice of life and about its impact on American culture as a whole.  Accordingly, Elizabeth Arden, Madame C.J. Walker and Mary Kay, among others, are portrayed as both intimately connected to the all-female networks, grassroots marketing strategies, and white-focused beauty standards developed in Americas beauty culture and savvy businesswomen who brought fresh ideas into American business culture.  Therefore, after WWI, when the beauty business mushroomed (along with the rest of the economy) into a male-operated, mass-media behemoth, it was instrumental in bringing both female consumers and female businesswomen into the mass market, thus empowering women in the interwar economy.

Women were also empowered in those interwar years by the application of makeup itself.  Rather than succumb to sedate mass-market beauty prescriptions, women followed the lead of their favorite actresses and painted up; bobbed hair, short skirts, and rouged lips and cheeks defied authority and emphasized women's sex appeal.  How better to celebrate their new status as equals in the marketplace than by asserting their physical presence and personal autonomy?

Right.  Here's where my inner grump comes in: even if makeup can be seen as liberatory (which, hey, in the 1920s it probably was), it still focuses the attention on a woman's body, on appearances, on sexuality.  At the risk of sounding like a generation-late Andrea Dworkin or a watered-down Maureen Dowd, women are always already seen as sexualized bodies, so emphasizing those bodies isn't particularly subversive.  And anyway, the slide back from subversive subject to sexualized object is just too easy when both take the female body as their reference point.

But I digress.  That kind of feminism definitely had its place, and Peiss' book is good at exploring its empowering intersections with mainstream beauty culture.

29: Joy Kasson's Buffalo Bill's Wild West

Buffalo Bill's Wild West is one of those cool pop culture books that simultaneously teaches you a ton about a cultural product and about the culture that produced it.  In this case, the product is the ever-evolving, politically-topical, travelling western variety show hosted by "Buffalo Bill" Cody around the turn of the last century; the culture that produced it is turn-of-the-century America, a world as uneasy about the conflict and exploitation in its past as it was about the growth of industrial capitalism in its midst.  Arguing that Buffalo Bill himself was among the first modern American celebrities, Kasson shows how his Wild West shows knit together celebrity, American history, and cultural memory into a new narrative of American national identity.

Kasson uses a lot of interdisciplinary hoopla to achieve her goal, but basically, her argument goes like this.  Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show was enormously popular starting in the 1890s, and its producers constantly tweaked it to incorporate both audience feedback and topical stories, so we can safely consider it embedded enough in turn-of-the-century American culture to have both affected and reflected the mood of the times.  Further, the show presented itself as both authentic history and spectacle, and Buffalo Bill himself was both a real person and a widely-publicized invented celebrity.  By walking a very hazy line between fact and fiction, the show started an enduring link between American history and popular culture, where history becomes a spectacle created by the people for their own edutainment.  Conflicts, wars, even struggles with Native Americans get whitewashed; in the name of pleasure, even the bloodiest battle scenes end with Indians - yes, real Indians! - and Anglos reconciled to the applause of the audience at the end of the show.

And finally, from history as edutainment, it's but a few short steps to national identity as edutainment: to paraphrase my friend Jessica, we like the lies we tell ourselves; if we tell them enough, eventually we come to believe them.

I like this book because it is readable, but also because it still rings true today.  Have you been to Disneyland?  Seen Lincoln?

28: Lynn Hunt's Inventing Human Rights

In Inventing Human Rights, Lynn Hunt links the development of universal human rights - the idea that all people, as a rather formative American document puts it, "are created equal" and have "certain unalienable rights" - to two 18th-century events: the French Revolution and the rise of the epistolary novel.

The French Revolution resulted in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, which argues for the existence of a universal humanity - "man" - and the necessary connection between the rights of this universal body and the body politic.  If that language feels a lot like that in the Constitution, that's because it is: universal humanity and equal rights were both Enlightenment concepts, and the framers of the Constitution were Enlightenment men.

But the novel?  Hunt argues that novels, which didn't even exist before the 18th century, were hugely important in the construction of human rights because they created a sustained, intimate relationship between the reader and characters whose lives were very different from their own.  In particular, epistolary novels - especially ones about women - drew readers in with the most intimate details about characters' lives; if reading through fictionalized correspondence seems pedantic today (er, it does to me, anyway), back then, this extended snooping allowed readers to become familiar with, even attached to, people they had nothing in common with.  Arguing that familiarity breeds empathy, Hunt finds in the novel a necessary corollary to abstract concepts like "universal" and "equality:" individual empathy.  This empathy, she says, is necessary for universal human rights to work, since you can only see another person as an equal when you can see yourself in them.

Hunt thus puts a very human face on universal human rights.  While she could pay a little more attention to the lives of non-readers and the complex power structures in which they live and work, in this book she still provides a compelling intellectual and cultural history of a very formative idea.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

27: William Cronon's Nature's Metropolis

In Nature's Metropolis, Bill Cronon shows that the rapid growth of Chicago in the 19th century - from a few thousand residents in 1837 to some 300,000 in 1871 - was directly connected to the massive environmental restructuring of the western half of the United States at that time.  Chicago grew so quickly because it was surrounded by the magical combination of ridiculously abundant natural resources (forests in the north, rich soil in the plains, fish in the rivers, and so on), a growing transportation network, a series of technological developments (railroads, refrigerated cars, grain elevators, mechanization of grain and meat processing, etc) that reduced both travel times and spoilage of goods, and a relatively unregulated capitalist economy.  Thus, businesspeople razed entire forests in the upper midwest for housing timber, then cleared the land and used it for farming and husbandry; shot all the bison on the great plains, quarantined the Native Americans on reservations, and fenced in the land to create an elaborate system of factory farming; and turned much of the midwest into corn and wheat farms.  Railroads carried animals and produce from the hinterlands to the centralized stockyards and grain elevators in Chicago, where it was processed and shipped east (or back west) as needed.  And Chicago, which had become the center of a vast agricultural production and distribution network, boomed overnight.  The city and the country had become inextricably linked.

This is truly a fascinating book, and so well-written that even the technological and economic processes by which massive wheat production eventually led to the creation of the stock exchange are interesting.  The only criticisms I've seen are that Cronon doesn't spend enough time looking at the cultural productions in 19th century Chicago - and yes, that's true, he spends much more time in the stockyards, the railyards, and the stock exchange than at the theatre.  But really, at over 600 pages already, I think the book is lovely the way it is.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

I have a bit of a backlog coming up...

... as I rush to get at least somewhere in the vicinity of my reading goal for this month.  I'll still be posting over the next few days, but reviews will be shorter and sweeter!

Saturday, January 26, 2013

26: Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media

Reviews of Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man seem to follow roughly the same format: a brief overview of McLuhan's life that characterizes him as a wacky, provincial English professor-turned-overnight-celebrity; a few vague references to his most famous dictums; and an extension of his work to today's media, with an insistence that despite the passage of time, McLuhan's work is still surprisingly fresh and new and relevant. 

Be that as it may (hey, I'm all for finding relevance, even if I don't have the need to call someone a prophet), McLuhan's language is as obtuse as it is lovely, which makes for hard slogging.  Since one of the things he's known for is his tendency to write in aphorisms, I think the easiest way to summarize him here is to write out the three that gave me the most trouble, plus a fourth that gives me faith in humanity.

"the medium is the message"

This is the phrase McLuhan is probably most famous for.  Because it is so short, it's also a hard one to wrap my head around, and McLuhan wasn't much for giving careful explanations. The "is" doesn't help, either, because it implies that the two things are equal - which is confusing because it implies a tautology.  The way that this makes sense to me is to think about the relationship between social media and communication forms: a tweet or a Facebook status update or a Tumblr post is radically different from a blog post both in length and content; with less space and a greater emphasis on visuals, whatever information you're trying to convey in these smaller, more networked formats gets compressed, transformed, digested.  It's less medium = message and more medium --> message.  And the most successful messages are those that are well-tailored to by synergistic with their medium.

"the content of any medium is always another medium"

Ok.  Thanks, McLuhan, for defining a word with itself.  He goes on to explain, however, in his chapter on radio, that "[t]he content of the press is literary statement, as the content of the book is speech, and the content of the movie is the novel.  So the effects of radio are quite independent of its programming."  In a way, media are like a hall of mirrors or like Baudrillard's simulacra, copies of copies of copies; or maybe, in a more subversive vein, like Judith Butler's processes of translation.  They are telescoping, reflecting and repeating one another like a big, coordinated multimedia ad campaign.  And because of the time-space compression of newer media (see the blog-to-Twitter progression), older media are kept alive, at least for a time, within newer media: books within e-books within blogs and so on.

 "the bad news sells the good news"

Ever wonder why the news is always bad?  It's because bad news draws the viewer in to gawk or recoil in horror at the spectacle, so that the good news - the advertisements that show you what you can buy to make the horror go away - can catch you at a vulnerable moment.  Thus, when McLuhan was writing, anyway, commercials and programming were combined into one big program, so that program flowed into ad flowed back into program.  The interesting thing is that because a series of commercials is really a set of fragmented, disconnected texts, programmers rely on viewers' brains to fill in the gaps and connect the fragments into a larger coherent narrative.  Luckily, our brains are trained - ideologically, repetitively - to look for common threads, and to see nothing strange about a seamless integration of real life news, entertainment, and injunctions to consume.

Although "the medium is the message" seems to argue that content follows form, the telescoping nature of media seems to ensure that we stay on a technologically-mediated level playing field of reflected images, and the media themselves seem capable of sheer manipulation, I don't think that McLuhan was necessarily a technological determinist.  I say this because of his discussion of bicycles:

"It was no accident that the Wright Brothers were bicycle mechanics, or that early airplanes seemed in some ways like bicycles.  The transformations of technology have the character of organic evolution because all technologies are extensions of our physical being."

Technologies may condition the way humans communicate, but human beings are still very much a part of the technological system; technological change is still "organic evolution" because technologies are "extensions of our physical being" and therefore humans, not technologies, control the direction and rate and quality of technological change.  To folks who fear that the culture industry is going to take over the world and we'll wake up one day and find ourselves in the middle of Idiocracy, McLuhan argues that humans have the power to stop that kind of development from happening.  Which, if you think about it, was a necessary, albeit old school, message for Cold War America, presented in an interestingly old-fashioned print media-turned-celebrity package.

25: Jeff Meikle's American Plastic

Jeff Meikle's American Plastic delves into the history, technology, and business of plastic (in the US) to show that plastic is both material and metaphor for American culture.  On the one hand, plastic's seemingly infinite malleability can lead to creative freedom and human domination over nature; on the other, its synthetic, chemical artificiality detaches us from the natural world and thus leads, somehow, to death.  Lest this dichotomy seem too simple, he situates his history of plastic within Thomas Hughes' "technological momentum" framework, which holds that when technologies are young, they are easily manipulated by society; as they (and their attendant industries and systems of distribution) age, they shift from the manipulated to the manipulators.  Thus, if plastic was all "whatever" in the late 1800s, by the late 20th century, plastic had become a necessary, if silently lurking, element in our everyday lives.

The majority of the book focuses on technological manufacturing processes, the development of the plastics industry, and changing cultural perceptions of plastic (which were often, especially in DuPont's case, carefully crafted by ad execs).  The part that I found most interesting was Meikle's discussion of the relationship between plastics and streamlining in the 1930s, as it captures an industry, a technology, a culture and an aesthetic all in transition at once.

Although Bakelite, the first synthetic plastic, had been around since the turn of the century, it didn't take off until the 1920s, when its promoters were able to recast it as a material of innovation rather than one of simulation.  This reframing of plastic as something wholly man-made - and the reframing of "man-made" as a positive quality - was reflected in Bakelite's new emphasis on modern design, which took advantage of plastic's plasticity to create shapes and textures that could not be held by natural materials.  Inspired by Bakelite, other plastics manufacturers followed suit and developed radios, furniture, bowls, and other household goods with sleek, smooth surfaces and simple, sweeping curves.  Meikle is careful to point out that this streamlining trend was NOT a direct result of the plastic manufacturing process, which involved pouring softened plastic into molds.  Instead, he argues that the 1930s were a moment of flux, when culture and technology were on relatively equal footing: 1930s design resulted partly from consumer demand for 'machine-age forms' and partly from the high cost of machining plastic molds, which pushed manufacturers to develop simpler, more streamlined forms.  In other words, plastic and streamlining came together as a "happy coincidence."  Plastic sure did look good in curvilinear forms, though.  More importantly, the visual disconnect between the new streamlined plastics and natural materials and forms, which now looked irregular and staid by comparison, appealed to Americans' utopian aspirations while also giving plastic its identity.

After WWII and into the 1960s, plastic stopped being the utopian super material and started to seem emblematic of everything that was wrong with American society: cookie cutter homes filled with identical vinyl floors, naugahyde furniture, and Tupperware, social isolation, inequality and environmental destruction.  Meikle doesn't suggest that plastics directly caused the countercultural revolution - his analysis is far too nuanced to do that - but he does tie the proliferation of plastic to an ongoing tension between human creativity and the sense that American culture is increasingly detached from "the resistant stuff of nature."  Considering that a little under a century ago we were celebrating the domination of nature via plastic, this tension reveals a now-mature technological system's imbalance of power between humans and nature.  Meikle calls the tension "insoluble;" I've never considered myself much of an environmentalist, but I do hope he's wrong. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

24: Laura Pulido's Black, Brown, Yellow and Left

Laura Pulido squeezes several agendas into this book.  As an LA activist who worked with an antiracist, anticapitalist group called the Labor/Community Strategy Center to organize a multiethnic left, she is interested in learning from the history and mechanics of previous multi-racial organizing attempts; she is also interested in fostering a class-based leftist politics among her readers.  As a scholar, she is fascinated by the sixties and frustrated that histories of radicalism in that period are either mostly white or centered around the Black Panther Party, so she wants to expand the history of racial/ethnic activism to incorporate more of LA's racial and ethnic groups; and she wants to complicate racism by breaking down the black white binary and investigating racial hierarchies and collaborations (or not) in the people she is studying.
Therefore, Black, Brown, Yellow and Left is part history of the Third World Left, part empirical study of what she calls "differential racism," and part analysis of the growth, development, and decline of a social movement.  Pulido accomplishes all of these goals via a comparative analysis of left-leaning activism among three racial/ethnic groups in LA in the late 1960s and early 1970s, using three organizations as stand-ins: the Black Panther Party for African Americans; East Wind, a Japanese American group, for Asian Americans; and CASA, a Chicano/a group, for Latino/as.

Although the details of each case make for good reading, her historical conclusions about the relationship between race/ethnicity, racism, and Left activism reveal the complexities of the Third World Left.  Her study of the Black Panther Party suggests that their two main concerns of self-defense and community service were directly related to African American racialization (as the 'Other' to whites, they were at the very bottom of the racial hierarchy and over-policed) and their class position as urban poor.  CASA, by contrast, focused on labor organizing and immigration issues reflected Chicano/as position as a 'problem minority': their racial status and particular historical experiences as immigrants and low-wage workers meant that they were a needed part of the economy, but only as subordinated and exploited workers.  And as a Japanese American group in a multiethnic, multi-class Asian American community, East Wind focused on issues of identity, community service, and solidarity work; their activities reflected their mixed economic position and their status as a 'middle minority.'

Though Pulido found enough connections among groups to indicate a relatively coherent Third World Left, she quickly discovered that these connections were rather thin.  All three organizations were interested in the connection between their own identity as a racial or ethnic 'nation' and anticolonial struggles worldwide, and all three were fighting racism and economic exploitation at home, but they were unsure how to work with other communities in LA.  This uncertainty had a lot to do with the complex racial hierarchies in LA at the time: African Americans, for instance, were at the bottom of the social hierarchy, but through the millitancy and visibility of the Black Panther Party they were at the top of the social movement hierarchy. Uncertain positioning, as well as uncertainty regarding the status of one's own group, made lasting coalitions difficult.

Pulido argues that despite a strong need for a multiethnic left today, the situation is much the same as it was in the 1960s and 1970s: strong ethnic groups with weak connections among them, and a weak Third World Left as a result.  Despite some issues with scope (using a single organization to stand in for all ethnic/racial organizing, for instance), Pulido's book provides a thoughtful analysis of the intersections between race and class in LA that may well be a useful guidebook for folks trying to build political capital today.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

23: Edwin Layton's Revolt of the Engineers

Revolt of the Engineers lives in the depths of library storage, which is unfortunate because it's a rather interesting study of a failed social movement among early 20th-century engineers.  Also, it was written in 1971, and the political and ideological struggles of that era seem clearly to have influenced Layton's thinking.  And maybe it's just me, but I find reading about a social movement from one era through the eyes of another to be rather illuminating.

Layton argues that professionalization and progressive organizing efforts among engineers in the early 20th century may not have led to large, lasting social change either within the profession or in American society, but the engineers' efforts were still an important cross-pollination between technology and culture.

To support this claim, Layton traces a chronological history of the rise and fall of different professional engineering organizations and their relationship to the broader social reform movement in turn-of-the-century America.  One of his more entertaining examples is the career of Henry Gantt, whose appropriately-named Gantt charts are still in use today, at least among my undergrad Civil Engineering students.

Henry Gantt was a talented follower of Frederick Taylor, the guy who devised all those time and motion studies to make Ford's assembly lines faster and more efficient.  (Harry Bravermann and Tim Cresswell both do cool - and very different - treatments of Taylor and his impact.)  Like Taylor, Gantt thought scientific management was the best thing ever, and he developed his Gantt chart as a visual project management tool to help users maintain top-down scientific control over an entire process.  Also like Taylor, Gantt thought that scientific management principles could and should be applied in areas beyond the confines of business, especially government and education.  But Gantt, who liked to carefully chart out arms production and ship production processes in his office during WWI, went a step further.  With the right visualization tools (heh) and a firm commitment to scientific management principles, Gantt thought that engineers could potentially plan not just individual industries but the whole economy, from defense production, education, and government to automobile manufacturing, city development, and social services.  And because scientific management efficiently allocated resources and talent, letting the engineers run society would be perfectly efficiently and perfectly just.  Democracy and scientific management would finally become synonymous!

Now, the problem with this scheme, as Layton points out, is that it's not a democracy but a technocracy, where the engineers in their central planning offices get to design sociotechnical systems, but all citizens can do is conform to them.  Incidentally, this kind of thinking also plagued engineering's professional societies, where infighting over power and prestige kept engineers from making any serious progress toward social goals.  Layton concludes here, with the decline of a movement that could have had a huge impact on society, particularly during the Great Depression. 

Yet I think that if self-serving politics hindered engineers from effecting large-scale social reform or a mass seizure of political power, they helped them spread scientific management ideas in more conservative arenas like business, and manufacturing in particular.  Here, stripped of its revolutionary potential, scientific management could be used to further exploit the labor of assembly-line and sweatshop workers by speeding the pace of production and thus lowering per-unit labor costs.  Layton doesn't dwell on this particular legacy, but his frustration with his subjects' deflation of their movement is clear.  The implications for the time in which he was writing seem pretty clear, too.

22: Hugh Aitken's Syntony and Spark

Syntony and Spark is nominally a history of the development of radio technology to 1914, and Hugh Aitken does a thorough job of tracing this technological trajectory from its origins in a set of mathematical equations (Maxwell's electromagnetic field) to a burgeoning communications industry at the eve of WWI.  But it is also a case study for a theory about the relationship between science, technology, and the economy.  The development of the radio is interesting, but I think Aitken's theoretical framework is even more so.

Aitken was writing in the 1970s, when the history of technology was still lost somewhere in the gulf between history and technological development and trying to find its sea-legs.  Scholars knew that they wanted to look carefully and critically at the relationship between technology and culture, but there were few models, and even fewer people had offered good, solid frameworks for studying the connection.  This book, according to John Staudenmaier and Emily Thompson, anyway, was one of the ones that made it.

Aitken's goal was to figure out a relationship between science, technology, and the economy, and he did so empirically, by tracing the development of spark radiotelegraphy.  His theory has three major components.

First, having traced the technology from its origins in Maxwell's theorems, to Hertz's and Lodge's experimental proof, to Lodge's and Marconi's development of viable commercial products and systems, Aitken argues that the process of transmission appears to be linear, from science (Maxwell) to technology (Hertz & Lodge) to business (Lodge and Marconi).

However, science, technology, and the economy are all vastly different spheres with their own norms, processes, methods of inquiry and creative potential.  Science is concerned with slowly and methodically enlarging human knowledge; technology is concerned with designing solutions to real-world problems, and the economy is concerned with generating profit by meeting consumer demand.  Each sphere thus speaks a different language, fosters a different set of skills, considers different things to be important, and considers different kinds of acts to be creative.  Thus, second, science might be generating one kind of knowledge, but it doesn't exactly have all of human knowledge and creativity in a headlock.  Rather, the three spheres are interdependent loci of creativity.

And third, this interdependence leads to a feedback look between the three spheres.  Science may uncover principles that technology can then build out into something the economy can use, but it goes the other way, too.  The economy can generate demand for certain technologies and fund certain kinds of research over others; and technology can empirically derive things that science finds useful, like Lodge's measuring instruments or Marconi's discovery that radio waves bend around the earth.

While Aitken's method could use more attention to social groups (instead of just "the economy" as a source of demand) and less attention to individual men who seemed to drive the pace of technological and scientific change all by their lonesomes, his theory still seems relevant today, and not just for radios.  The examples that immediately come to mind are iPhones and DNA mapping, both of which seem (to me at least) to be borne of tightly-knit webs of scientific, engineering, and business interests.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

21: Mitchell Duneier's Sidewalk

When I write a book, I want it to be like Sidewalk.

Mitchell Duneier is a sociologist who uses what he calls "diagnostic ethnography" to study the lives of poor, black, urban people.  In Sidewalk, he focuses on three blocks of Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village, where a group of magazine and book vendors, scavengers, panhandlers, movers, and assistants form a complex social network that has ties to both the formal and informal economies.  Duneier is interested in the moral choices his subjects make within the constraints of larger racial, political, and economic structures, but he is also deeply committed to helped these people get their voices heard; this commitment, and the respect that it entails, is what really makes this book for me.

It took Duneier 7 years to research Sidewalk.  He began by making contact with Hakim Hasan, a well-read vendor who specialized in "black books," and Hasan introduced him to other vendors, who in turn connected him with their assistants and eventually with the panhandlers who sometimes work with them to make a little extra money.  Three years in, he began working for Marvin, a magazine vendor, during summers, and he also started leaving a tape recorder on at his table all day so that his transcriptions could be faithful to the original conversations.  He interviewed a wide variety of people, from influential lawyers and city officials to pedestrians, regular customers, vendors, and relatives of the vendors, and he corroborated vendors' accounts with those of others wherever possible.  He also worked with Ovie Carter, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer for the Chicago Tribune, to create a photographic record of the blocks, so that photographs and text could inform one another.  And whenever he felt he needed to explain a phenomenon in larger structural terms (the self-respect vendors got by bargaining with customers, for instance) he delved into whatever relevant research he could find to help him make connections (in this case, he used research about the relationship between worker satisfaction and self-direction.)  This wide variety of methods and sources allow him to reconstruct both the individual people he worked with and the larger structures in which they operate.

His discussion of the "Fuck it!" attitude discussed by many of his subjects is a case in point.  After noticing that saying "Fuck it!" seemed to have a pattern to it, especially for the unhoused people he spoke to, he began to ask them what they meant.  They told him that people who espoused this attitude often recognized that their addiction to drugs or alcohol played an active role in their becoming unhoused, and they talked about having finally given up trying to maintain their former lifestyle - saying "Fuck it!"  For these people, this attitude had several consistent components and was directly related to their homelessness: pervasive application to all areas of their lives; embarrassment or shame, and hope that their loved ones don't see them in their new state; indifference to behavior that the person once saw as necessary or natural, like sleeping in a bed or urinating in a toilet; and the freedom they gained from having let go of their responsibilities to other people.  There were also different levels of "Fuck it!" which ranged from ignoring family responsibilities to actively stealing from others.  For these people, saying "Fuck it!" was a way of regaining a small amount of control over a life that was rapidly spinning away from them; it was also, in the eyes of the people to whom he spoke, something their community helped them avoid, because it was destructive on both an individual and a social level.  Duneier reads into this discussion not a judgment against addiction or homelessness but a strong community that works together to combat depression and excessive drug use, and a support network that works with the few resources it has to keep its members afloat.

Duneier's respect for his subjects is visible in other places as well.  He respected the many hours they gave him for interviews, and returned the favor by paying them for their time.  He eventually chose to tape record their conversations so that their words wouldn't fall prey to his own recall errors.  He asked Hasan, his original contact, to co-teach a seminar with him and secured him a semester-long lecturer position to do so.  When he had finished the manuscript, he sat down with every single person he had interviewed, showed them where they were in the book, and made sure his representations were accurate.  As a result, he was able to use real names for almost all of his subjects.  And, by way of thanks, he returned his publisher's advance and a portion of the book's royalties to 21 prominent figures on the sidewalk.

And, perhaps most respectful of all, he reminds his readers that he cannot speak for his subjects, that he was never quite sure how much of their trust he had earned, and that no one, not even a sociologist, can truly know what is going on inside another person's head.  He emphasizes these points to argue that racial, class, and cultural divides are sometimes insurmountable, but, truthfully, I can't think of a better way to level the playing field.

20: John Staudenmaier's Technology's Storytellers

Technology's Storytellers is an analysis of 20 years' worth of articles from Technology and Culture, the main journal for historians of technology.  It is also, despite this limited scope, an articulation of a new way if thinking about the relationship between technology and culture, which Staudenmaier calls the "constituency model."

Staudenmaier's taxonomies of the articles are interesting, especially insofar as this book is basically a big long bibliography essay for an emerging field of study.  But his constituency model is probably more interesting, so I'll focus on that here.

The constituency model is based on (his dissertation director) Thomas Hughes' theory of technological momentum, which argues (basically) that when technologies are new, they are very malleable and thus very responsive to cultural conditions, but as they age, they become harder to change, and thus they are more likely to shape culture than to be shaped by it.

Staudenmaier adds to this theory in a couple of ways.  First, he divides the aging of technology into three phases and assigns a constituency to each:
  •  the design stage + design constituency: the attitudes of the inventors, the economic and ideological climate when (and where) the design is taking place, potential users, potential workers, and available technologies all help shape the technology
  • the momentum stage + maintenance constituency: as a technology matures and becomes more rigid/ harder to change, it's easier to change culture to fit the technology than to try to change the technology, so new social patterns start to emerge
  • the senility stage: a technology, which is an artifact of the particular time and place of its creation and early life, finally becomes outmoded because the world around it has changed so much.  Sometimes the technology gets redesigned; more often, the technology's boosters try to realign culture with the technology and fail.
  • the impact constituency: these are the people who lose because of a technology, or those who suffer from the rigidities and limitations in the technology.

Like Hughes, Staudenmaier is interested in broadening the study of technology from histories of the development of the object itself to explorations of the relationship between a technology and its particular historical moment.  More than Hughes, however, he has a radical agenda of uncovering and giving voice to those people who are adversely affected by technologies, form the Lakota Sioux whom Staudenmaier taught after college to the people in third world countries who are forced into sweatshop labor.  He also argues that historians of technology should not be afraid of Marx.

While a study of a single journal's articles is more a study of editorial preferences than field-wide trends, Staudenmaier's theoretical intervention is rather useful, especially in a globalized economy where the Western faith in technological progress is now pretty much everywhere.  I'm a big fan of finding ways to give voice to the oppressed and questioning the drive to solve all the world's problems with ever more technological solutions.

19: Joy Parr's Sensing Changes

Sensing Changes is a study of five Canadian communities affected by mid-century megaprojects and a sixth community affected by water contamination in the early 2000s.  Joy Parr's more pressing concern, however, is not the communities themselves but the "embodied history" they represent.  Therefore, the book does detail the aftermath of human and environmental displacement, but it does so mostly so that its author can advocate a paradigm shift in the way we do history.

Parr proposes embodied history, or a historical approach that seeks to recover historical information from all five senses, because she is frustrated with the linguistic turn in the humanities.  Per Parr, a linguistic approach requires her to view her subjects through the lens of culturally-constructed discourse, and it privileges those bodily senses most easily repeatable and describable: sight and hearing.  By contrast, Parr thinks knowledge resides in individual experience, not in some amorphous thing called culture, and she thinks that all five senses, not just sight and hearing (the most communicable ones) need to be brought into historical discussions, so that we can truly understand what it was like to live in a certain place at a particular time.  She wants to give voice to the oppressed, and she thinks that focusing on individual bodily experience will help her do it.

Parr pursues this logic through all of her case studies, but the one that I found particularly interesting is the case of the village of Iroquois, a small 19th-century mill town that was moved in its entirety in 1958 to make way for the St. Lawrence Seaway.  Although the residents of the town first tried to fight the relocation and then tried to convince the Canadian government to at least let them plan their new town, their pleas fell on deaf ears.  "Hydro" was moving small towns all along the new waterway, and they had a cookie-cutter model city already planned out for Iroquois, complete with mid-century suburban bungalows, curved streets and even a strip mall. 

Thus, those buildings that could be moved, were; the rest were burned and then scattered so as not to create a threat to navigation, and the residents were moved 1.6km north to their new village.  In her narration of this process, Parr focuses not on the logistics of moving the village or on epic battles between residents and Hydro, but on the impact of the move on the bodies of the people who lived there.  Using interviews with Iroquois residents, she describes how it felt to replace a thriving, walkable commercial district with empty parking lots and strip malls; how it felt to go from fishing generations-old fishing spots to seeking out new fishing holes in a now artificial body of water; and what it was like to go from a walking community where neighbors saw each other daily to a driving community where they rarely saw them at all. 

And then she talks about the trees.  In old Iroquois, huge maples, some a meter in diameter, lined most of the streets and provided shade in the summer and wind protection in the winter.  Some were thousands of years old.  The village also had a large apple orchard along the river, with four different varieties of apples and summer employment for the residents.  When the village had to see their old homes and businesses burned and razed, that was traumatic enough; but when they had to see their trees burned and razed - well, the trees were so integral to their sense of place that they cried to see them cut down.  And then when new Iroquois was built without trees, they were disoriented: old people couldn't find their homes, mothers had to make sure their children wore sunblock, and no one wanted to go outside in the winter because they now lived in a barren, windswept plain.  One older man predicted that he would never see trees again, and he was right - the saplings the villagers planted in the new town had barely taken root when he died.

A lot of this book feels pretty hippy-dippy to me, and I do think Parr's analysis would greatly benefit from a more balanced approach to the history of the megaprojects - maybe incorporating top-down history of project development to complement the embodied history, maybe trusting her sources to be something other than traumatized, sensing bodies.  But that said, I like that her method gives voice to and validates the villagers' loss of place.  It advocates a more community-based style of placemaking; it also restores some of the power to create history to the people who live it.

Friday, January 18, 2013

18: Emily Thompson's The Soundscape of Modernity

Emily Thompson calls The Soundscape of Modernity "a history of aural culture in early twentieth-century America," and lest you wonder (as I did) what on earth aural culture is and why anyone should care about it, she spends the book carefully reconstructing both the new kinds of sounds that came out of processes of modernization AND the new ways of listening that were shaped by those sounds.  The result, she argues, is a more finely-textured understanding of what it was like to live in the US at the turn of the century and thus a greater understanding of how technological change and culture interact. 

Thompson uses a wide range of sound- and listening-related cultural and spatial forms, from orchestra halls to acoustic tiles to jazz to noise abatement commissions, to argue that modernity brought new sounds and thus new ways of listening.  The examples that truly got me, however, were the acoustically-engineered spaces that bookend her narrative: Boston's Symphony Hall, completed in 1900, and New York's Radio City Music Hall, completed in 1932.  These two buildings came out of radically different understandings of both sound and listening, and they thus show just how far acoustics had come in just 30 years.

When Symphony Hall was being built, the architects wanted an auditorium that could compete with the greatest halls in Europe, so they hired a Harvard physicist, Wallace Sabine, to figure out a way to predict the acoustical quality of rooms.  Sabine proceeded empirically: he asked the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra where the best halls were (Vienna and Paris, I think), then went to those halls, inventoried all of the surfaces in them (plaster, cushions, glass, wood, etc), and performed a series of reverberation tests where he blew into an organ pipe and counted the seconds until he couldn't hear the sound anymore.  Using these data, he derived absorption constants for materials commonly found in rooms, and with these he developed a formula that related expected reverberation to the total surface area of materials in the room.  And from here, he was able to help the architects design a room that sounded as much like the great European halls as possible: live, rich, reverberent, and just as much an instrument as those in the orchestra.

Built roughly 30 years later, Radio City Music Hall was an entirely different beast.  In the intervening decades, acoustical engineers had developed three new technologies: microphones, loudspeakers, and construction materials that severely restricted reverberation; auditoriums now had substantially less "noise," and listeners had come to prefer clear, efficient, electroacoustically-produced sound over live unmediated sound.  In fact, rooms were now so dead and loudspeakers/mics so imperative that Sabine's formula was no longer precise enough to predict the acoustics of rooms.  Thus, Radio City Music Hall was designed not with Sabine's plaster/glass/wood-based formula, but with Carl Eyring's new synthetic space/synthetic sound-based one.  And it worked: if people sitting at the very back of the 6500-seat auditorium could barely make out performers on stage, the hall's vast system of loudspeakers ensured that they heard their voices just fine.  It was a new kind of auditorium for a new mass audience.

In other words, as what people listened to changed from live musical productions (and other organic sounds, like dogs barking, policemen whistling, people talking, etc) to synthetic re-productions via loudspeakers (and other non-organic sounds, like trains, cars, construction equipment, etc), they came to expect and prefer the mechanical over the natural, the clean re-production over the acoustical messiness of the live show.

I might argue that the cause and effect in this process were a bit different, but otherwise her argument has a strong resonance today: how many times have you gone to see a band... and come away thinking that well, that was all right, but they sounded better on their recording?


Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Forgive me, dear readers...

but school started up again this week, which means that in addition to reading, I've got meetings, lectures, seminars, lesson prep, and teaching - not to mention a rather brutal schedule adjustment to a 7am wakeup call.  Thankfully my students are amazing!

Needless to say, reading is progressing slowly, and posting slower still.  I'll write again as soon as I'm not overcome by exhaustion - hopefully before next week.

Monday, January 14, 2013

17: Walter LaFeber's The American Age

I'm not entirely sure why I had to read a textbook on American foreign policy from the 1980s, but LaFeber's strange combination of 1930s-style grand narrative and tongue-in-cheek progressive commentary throughout made for an interesting read.

The American Age is LaFeber's grand attempt to summarize in 700 pages the history of American foreign policy since 1750 (yes, since before we were even a country.)  In particular, he's in search of themes that can apply to (and make sense of) 250 years of American history, and his ideal audience is students and teachers.  And amazingly, he finds five major themes that more or less make sense:
  • the expansive quest for new land and new business opportunities that drove the nation outward from the 1750s to the 1840s
  • the steady centralization of power at home, especially in the oval office, after about 1890, because the kind of presence Americans want abroad requires a strong presidency
  • the recurrent emphasis on isolationism, which isn't so much wanting to be left alone as wanting to keep other powers from meddling with freedom and individualism
  • the importance of 1850-1914, when the US reconsidered isolationism, the constitution, and democracy in its pursuit of world dominance
  • how Americans act at home reveals much about how they act and what they expect abroad.
Basically, he's arguing that the development of the United States - culturally, politically, and economically - is and always has been intimately related to our foreign policies and interactions with other nations.

The part of this book that's most fascinating, I think, is LaFeber's emphasis on historical continuity.  Many historians like to talk about history as if it were composed of many separate eras: the Jacksonian Age, the Industrial revolution, the Guilded Age, the Progressive Era, the Machine Age, the post-postindustrial era, etc. I'm all for periodizing things, since thinking about history in terms of one long continuum makes my brain hurt, but I think it's important to emphasize that the periods are connected to one another and that there are no radical breaks in history.  For instance, smart phones have dramatically transformed the way we live, but people still use older communication technologies like landlines, letters, and emails, we still remember a time when those technologies were new or at least prevalent, and the networks and patterns of communication shaped by those older technologies have helped shaped the networks and patterns we have today.

Similarly, LaFeber argues that the practices and ideas that guided American foreign policy in the 20th century have their roots in practices and ideas from earlier eras, and that each new administration picked up where the last left off.  In addition to historical continuity, LaFeber also argues for spatial continuity, and he takes pains to write about conflicts and relationships that were overshadowed by others. 

Some elements of this strategy are not so good: emphasizing continuity can make it feel too much like history determines the past, or like there is something unique and essential about America, Americans, or the Constitution that guide all of our actions and make us the chosen people.  LaFeber is definitely guilty of both of these errors.  But to argue, as he ultimately does, that American expansion both across the continent and across the globe has long been based in Thomas Paine's claim that what is good for America is good for the world, and that what is "good for America" has long been exploitative commercial enterprise - well, that's a wakeup call.  And it's a particularly useful one when it's carefully embedded in what reads, eerily, like a high school history textbook.

Friday, January 11, 2013

10 days in, 16 books down, 144 to go!


so many books...

16: McAdam, Tarrow & Tilly's Dynamics of Contention

Dynamics of Contention is not the easiest to get through (ok, so it made me want to put an ice pick through my head), but it's a pretty important book in social movement theory, so here goes.

Back in the day (like, before the 1960s), social movement theory was a lot closer to social psychology, or crowd theory, or theories of contagion: basically, scholars knew that social movements could and did form and that they could be really dangerous for the social order (see the French Revolution, for instance), but they blamed them on mob mentality and temporary insanity.  And in the 1960s and 70s, when all that social unrest was going on, social scientists did develop more complex theories, but these were still relatively simple: people join organizations which in turn build a mass following and put enormous pressure on the government and the rest of society.  (So claim the authors of this book, anyway.)

Dynamics of Contention builds on the theories from the 60s and 70s, but it updates them for the Postmodern era in three ways:
  • combines lots of different kinds of uprisings - revolutions, strikes, wars, social movements, and so on - under the more general umbrella of "contentious politics," so that the things scholars have learned about these different struggles can be pooled together in hopes of finding commonalities among them
  • shifts the thing being studied from organizations and individuals to relationships between different organizations and actors, and looks at these relationships as being unstable, shifting, and "dynamic" rather than fixed
  • systematizes the study of political struggle from holistic histories to systematic analyses and a search for "processes" and "mechanisms" that all political struggles share.
Basically, they make things more complicated, since it's a lot harder to keep track of a bunch of individual people who are all parts of different political organizations and friends with different people at different times than it is to just talk about, say, battles between SNCC and the Black Panthers.  And a more complicated model means that whatever they come up with with look more like real life, right?

Having made things more like real life, then, they spend the rest of the book poking around in 15 different political struggles from all different points in history and all different parts of the world, and they come up with three - yes, three - processes that most of these struggles share.  These are:
  • Actor constitution, where contentious groups form by developing a shared vision and then doing something unusual to get their demands heard and make their presence known
  • Polarization, where all the moderates head to one or the other of two political or social poles, and the vacuum in the middle keeps the two sides from talking to each other and coming to peaceable conflict resolution
  • Scale shift, where a local contentious group grows into a translocal, national, or international group by linking up with other groups who have similar interests or grievances
Thinking about the development of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, this model makes sense to me.  I'm not a huge fan of giant, transhistorical studies that don't collect their own data, though, and I'm also a little weirded out by two holes in their model: it doesn't seem to differentiate between successful and unsuccessful movements, and it only seems to account for the growth of movements, not their functioning or their decline.  But these guys are bigwig sociologists; perhaps these concerns are addressed somewhere else in their work.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

15: Agee & Evans' Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

After days of pounding through historians, sociologists, and geographers, poring over the iconic images and arresting prose of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men makes me feel alive again.  (Hey, I was an English major for a reason!) 

Nominally, James Agee and Walker Evans' book is a study of three (white) sharecropping families in rural Alabama in summer 1936, the Ricketts, the Gudgers, and the Woods.  But as James Agee argues in the book's opening pages, it is much, much more than that.  It is a full, thorough, truthful account of their subjects in both narrative and photographic form; a conversation, albeit limited by the asynchronous nature of their chosen medium, among the families, the writer and photographer, and the reader; an indictment of the capitalist system that abuses those lowest in its hierarchy; a study of the humanity of the poor; and - let's be honest - a way to make a little money for Agee and Evans, too.

Both photos and narrative touch on all of these themes in depth, but the most central one, I think, is the humanity - both unique to them and common to all people - of the tenant families themselves.  And, possibly because they lived with George and Annie Mae Gudger for the four weeks of their study, or because this couple was closest to their own age but occupying such a different part of the socioeconomic hierarchy, both Agee and Evans express this theme best with respect to George Gudger.

Since Evans' image of Gudger comes first in the book, he gets to speak first here.

I'm not the best at reading images, but I will say this: from the distance of nearly 80 years, this image is very much the image of the depression: the gritty black-and-white exposure, the half-clean shirt and overalls, the rough background, the eyes looking directly into the camera in a mixture of strength, frustration, and despair.  It is the stuff that American ideology is made of: the depression may have beaten America down, but the people are determined, and we will win!  But there are so many different emotions playing out at once in Gudger's face, and the tight framing of the photo accentuates not the poverty of his surroundings, but him: in creating this portrait, Evans has allowed a single man to express the way he feels about how his life is turning out, and simultaneously created something that speaks to many, many people who've been there.

Agee, no less poetic, describes Gudger in this way:

George Gudger is a human being, a man, not like any other human being so much as he is like himself…. [S]omehow a much more important, and dignified, and true fact about him than I could conceivably invent, though I were an illimitably better artist than I am, is that fact that he is exactly, down to the last inch and instant, who, what, were, when and why he is.  He is in those terms living, right now, in flesh and blood and breathing, in an actual part of a world in which also, quite as irrelevant to imagination, you and I are living.  Granted that beside that fact it is a small thing, and granted also that it is essentially and finally a hopeless one, to try merely to reproduce and communicate his living as nearly exactly as possible, nevertheless I can think of no worthier and many worse subjects of attempt. 

Like Evans, Agee describes Gudger as both a "human being, a man" and "himself;" he belongs simultaneously to his own day to day life and to the world of "you and I;" he is at once irreplicable and reproducible.

This theme, by the way, ties in nicely with the title of the book; the second half of the verse that begins "let us now praise famous men," which Agee intentionally leaves out, only to append at the end, is "and our fathers that begat us" - irreplicable but reproducible men in their own right.

14: W.E.B. Du Bois' The Philadelphia Negro

W.E.B. Du Bois' The Philadelphia Negro is a sociological study of the black population in Philadephia at the turn of the century.  It was commissioned by Progressive reformers interested in understanding and reducing the high rates of poverty and crime then attributed to the black community, and it contains empirical data culled from thousands of personal interviews that Du Bois conducted with Philly's black residents.  It touches on everything from family structure, occupations, and health to the class hierarchies within the black community and the impacts of racism and segregation on the landscape.

Du Bois was kind of a badass.  He only had enough funding from U-Penn to spend a year on this study and not enough to hire anyone to help him, so he personally interviewed thousands of Philly's black residents and then compiled all of the data himself.  Where possible, he also compared the trends he found in his data to data from similar studies.  I have no idea how he slept or when he ate.

The results of this study, and Du Bois' interpretation of them, are freakishly similar to conditions and interpretations today. 

His map of the 7th ward, for instance, where roughly 40% of Philly's black population lived, shows evidence of enforced segregation, as black homes and white homes are rarely on the same block, and black families pay more for poorer housing than do white families. 

The map also shows evidence of social stratification within the black community, as middle-class black families may live on the same tree-lined sections of Lombard street as working-class families, but the poor and the "vicious and criminal classes" are concentrated in alley tenements and in Minister Street between 7th and 8th. 

His study of death rates and causes of death shows that the black population has much higher death rates than does Philly's population at large, that the highest death rates are in wards with the poorest sanitation and most overcrowding, and that the majority of these deaths (outside of stillbirths) are from diseases directly related to these poor living conditions: consumption, pneumonia, and urinary tract infections.

And his study of occupations and demographics shows that though the community does have its share of professionals and middle-class workers, the vast majority of black workers are employed in domestic service, and no one works in industry - an occupational composition he attributes to discriminatory hiring practices and industrial union racism.

Even though it was written more than a century ago, this book feels like contemporary work by William Julius Wilson or Massey & Denton, who argue, like Du Bois, that restricting housing and employment opportunities for an entire group of people and then blaming that group for being slow to raise itself out of poverty is racist, illogical, and unfair (not to mention essentialist and just plain ridiculous.)  That Du Bois' work languished in obscurity for almost fifty years due to that same racist, illogical, and unfair mindset, and that the problems he addressed empirically a century ago are still issues today - well, I can't think of any more frustrating or more powerful evidence of the enduring power of fear, racism, and hate.

13: Michael Denning's The Cultural Front

Michael Denning's The Cultural Front, for all its weighty historical detail and analysis, centers around a single theme: that the 1930s amalgamation of labor and cultural interests into a "Popular Front" might be little-known now, but it resulted in a "laboring of culture" that is still reverberating, at least in left-leaning circles, today.
What Denning means by "laboring of culture" is the tricky part, because he sees labor and culture as dialectically related parts, which means that each shapes the other and that they're therefore as difficult to separate as a codependent high school couple.  So he spends the first half of the book tracing their conjoined public appearances, including the shared language of the "labor movement," the "proletariat," and the "work," "toil," and "struggle" of labor activists and artists; the "proletarianization" of the culture industries, as children of working-class parents increasingly work as singers, artists, novelists, actors, cartoonists and make mass culture more like working-class culture; and the "social democratic" labor politics that influenced (and was influenced by) everything from textile strikes to fiction to dinner-table conversation.

The result of all this cross-pollination between labor movements, the people in the working-class, and cultural production, Denning argues, was a mass movement to permanently connect American labor with American culture.  That way, American culture could represent and be represented by the people, and Leftist and communist social visions could be realized. 

And lest his readers think he's making all of this up, Denning spends the whole second half of the book proving it by analyzing products of this labor-culture combo: John Dos Passos' U.S.A, John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, Billie Holiday's love songs, experimental musical theater, gangster films, and something he calls the "ghetto pastoral," of which A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is probably the best-known example.  By thoroughly examining each of these cultural productions formally (er, he spends a good 50 pages talking about metaphors and narrative structures in the Dos Passos section alone) and simultaneously situating them in their cultural and historical context, Denning shows that yes, in the 1930s, labor and culture were thoroughly intertwined.

Of course, mass culture is not super communist or particularly pro-Labor today; if anything, the profusion of reality TV shows, re-released remakes of Spiderman movies, auto-tuned pop music, and baby animal YouTube videos that populate mass culture serve more to distract us than to incite us to revolution.  But lest this decoupling of labor and culture prove that the Popular Front didn't have as much impact on American culture as Denning claims, he closes his book with this quote from cultural theorist Fredric Jameson:

history progresses by failure rather than by success…. It would be better to think of Lenin or Brecht (to pick a few illustrious names at random) as failures – that is, as actors and agents constrained by their own ideological limits and those of their moment of history – than as triumphant examples and models in some hagiographic or celebratory sense.

In other words, while the movement failed to permanently connect labor and culture, the people in it were both ordinary and extraordinary: they were totally human, but we are still trying to figure out the full implications of the things they produced, the ideas they had, and the politics they espoused.  And hey, maybe the most successful movements are those that show us how ordinary humans can create history.