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Survey of university press titles for fall 2017-winter 2018

Book Expo, the annual trade show for the publishing industry, is underway in New York City from Wednesday through Friday. University press folks will be unpacking their wares and settling into their booths not long after this column goes up.

This year I’m unable to attend, because it turns out that the expression “feeling anemic” is not just a figure of speech. (Doctors have tested my blood with some frequency in recent weeks and found it wanting.) I’m sorry to miss the chance to meet with press representatives but have been combing through the available catalogs and noting books likely to be of general or topical appeal -- and in the spirit of the event will point out a few now.

Many more titles are of interest than can be crammed into one survey of manageable length. I’ll return to others later in the summer, as currently delayed catalogs become available. Please note that the quotations and publishing dates given here are taken from the presses’ descriptions of the books. The publishing dates in particular may differ from what is given by online publishers, and the dates may be subject to change in either case.

Quite a few titles focus on the current political conjuncture. Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America by John Sides, Michael Tesler and Lynn Vavreck (Princeton University Press) is “a gripping in-depth account … that explains Donald Trump’s historic victory.” It is due out in January, which also happens to be the pub date for Patrick J. Deneen’s book explaining Why Liberalism Failed (Yale University Press). The short answer is that it “trumpets equal rights while fostering incomparable material inequality; its legitimacy rests on consent, yet it discourages civic commitments in favor of privatism; and in its pursuit of individual autonomy, it has given rise to the most far-reaching, comprehensive state system in human history.”

What looks like liberalism’s failure might be described, from another angle, as neoliberalism’s triumph, which seems to be the common perspective of two volumes from the University of California Press: Scott Kurashige’s The Fifty-Year Rebellion: How the U.S. Political Crisis Began in Detroit (July) and Laura Briggs’s How All Politics Became Reproductive Politics: From Welfare Reform to Foreclosure to Trump (September). Briggs understands reproductive politics to apply not just to childbearing but also to “the work we do to keep ourselves and families alive,” which includes the labor of maintaining the domestic sphere or of finding housing in the first place.

The Great Regression (Polity, June), a symposium edited by Heinrich Geiselberger, brings together essays by Arjun Appadurai, Nancy Fraser, Bruno Latour and a dozen other contributors to discuss the apparent eclipse of globalization and cosmopolitanism by nationalism and xenophobia. George Hawley explains one American manifestation of the shift in Making Sense of the Alt-Right (Columbia University Press, September), which considers “the movement’s “origins, evolution, methods, and its core belief in white identity politics.” Federico Finchelstein offers what sounds like a timely clarification of political nomenclature with From Fascism to Populism in History (California, September), which argues that, despite belonging to “the same history and [being] often conflated, fascism and populism actually represent distinct political and historical trajectories.”

One common denominator across the political spectrum today is frustration -- sometimes breaking into rage -- at entrenched, ineffective and unaccountable political establishments. That means a potentially broad audience for Ron Formisano’s American Oligarchy: The Permanent Political Class (University of Illinois Press, October), which “delves into the work of not just politicians but also lobbyists, consultants, appointed bureaucrats, pollsters, celebrity journalists, behind-the-scenes billionaires and others.” Armed with concepts from game theory and military strategy, James I. Wallner analyzes one theater of political combat in On Parliamentary War: Partisan Conflict and Procedural Change in the U.S. Senate (University of Michigan Press, November).

The role of weaponized ignorance in political life will surely be among the topics covered in Misinformation and Mass Audiences (University of Texas Press, January), a collection of studies edited by Brian G. Southwell, Emily A. Thorson and Laura Sheble, with contributors drawing on “communication research, public health, psychology, political science, environmental studies and information science.” It is worth noting that in Celebrity Influence: Politics, Persuasion and Issue-Based Advocacy (University Press of Kansas, December), Mark Harvey finds evidence that “when celebrities speak about issues of public importance, they get disproportionately more coverage than politicians.” Once that would have seemed like a symptom of political dysfunction rather than a cause; with a game-show host sitting in the White House, there may be room for debate.

Sorry for that long wallow in the quicksand of politics; there is more to scholarly publishing, let alone life. I’ll round off this survey of attention-grabbing titles with a few books that look more diverting. For example, there is Lynn Comella’s Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure (Duke University Press, September), which is surely an account of an increase in the sum of human happiness.

The forthcoming scholarly book most likely to inspire a cable TV reality series is undoubtedly John Hoberman’s Dopers in Uniform: The Hidden World of Police on Steroids (Texas, November). Making the trip in the opposite direction is In the House of the Serpent Handler: A Story of Faith and Fleeting Fame in the Age of Social Media (University of Tennessee Press, November) by Julia Duin, who reports on how two ministers “featured in the 2013 series Snake Salvation on the National Geographic Channel … attempted to reinvent the snake-handling tradition for a modern audience,” especially via Facebook. It sounds like the effort did not, on the whole, end well.

Finally, zombies. At least three titles are on the way, with Zombie Theory: A Reader (University of Minnesota, October) being perhaps the most high-profile. The editor, Sarah Juliet Lauro, has written one scholarly book on zombie culture and co-edited another; her third outing is “an interdisciplinary collection of the best international scholarship on zombies.” Dahlia Schweitzer’s Going Viral: Zombies, Viruses and the End of the World (Rutgers University Press, February) “identifies three distinct types of outbreak narrative, each corresponding to a specific contemporary anxiety: globalization, terrorism and the end of civilization,” while Chera Kee’s Not Your Average Zombie: Rehumanizing the Undead From Voodoo to Zombie Walks (Texas, September) examines the zombie corpus (sorry) to identify walkers who still have a bit of soul left in them. There’s no reason to suppose these three titles exhaust the zombie monography coming in the months ahead, of course. If The Walking Dead teaches us anything, it’s not to overestimate the reliability of a quick look around.

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Review of Joshua Reeves, "Citizen Spies: The Long Rise of America's Surveillance Society"

It was the working conditions of Soviet spies in the TV program The Americans that really drove home to me how pervasive and taken for granted the surveillance of public space has become.

Set in the Washington area during the 1980s, the show focuses on central characters who are extremely deep-cover agents -- the pride of the KGB academy -- and who seduce, betray, compromise and (when necessary) liquidate their human-intelligence sources right under the Reagan administration’s nose. The usual pleasures of a period drama are infused with an occasionally melancholic sort of dramatic irony: the agents struggle to meet their superiors’ demands in the interests of a regime that the audience knows already has one foot in the dustbin of history.

I’ve written about The Americans here in the past and will try to curb my fannish enthusiasm except to make a point. The show’s whole premise turns on the risk of exposure; the viewer develops a vicarious feel for the state of remaining constantly on guard against leaving tracks, and for speed and thoroughness in erasing them when you do. But rarely do the spies have to worry about being watched or recorded on a security camera. Video surveillance represents so negligible and manageable a risk as to seem odd, not to say careless, to the 21st-century viewer, for whom it is as much a fact of urban life as the danger of being run over by a driver checking his email.

While the options for storing, searching and retrieving visual data were limited, closed-circuit video systems tended to be larger and more blatant in 1984. (The year, I mean, not the book -- although, on reflection, that too.) But the ubiquity of monitoring devices now is not just a matter of superior engineering. It comes as part of the most recent phase of a process Joshua Reeves studies in Citizen Spies: The Long Rise of America’s Surveillance Society, published by NYU Press. (Reeves is an assistant professor of new media and speech communications at Oregon State University.)

By “citizen spies,” the author does not mean anyone engaged in espionage but rather people who, upon noticing (“spying”) criminal or otherwise suspicious activity, convey that information to the proper authorities. The latter are presumably legitimate, powerful and competent to respond appropriately. To put it another way, Reeves has in mind the kind of citizen who takes the widespread slogan “If you see something, say something” very much to heart. The good 21st-century citizen may even be defined as a “seeing/saying subject,” to adopt the author’s preferred expression.

He very quickly drives it into the ground, but it does imply an interesting conceptual prehistory. In the days before the rise of the modern police force in the West (about 200 or 300 years ago, depending on the country), enforcement of the law was the citizens’ duty. They faced the task not just of identifying lawbreakers but of apprehending them, as well -- rallying a crowd to find and corner a thief, for example. To ensure that citizens did their duty, those atop the social hierarchy imposed sizable financial burdens on municipalities where law and order were breaking down. Periodic service as a watchman was also mandatory. Reeves quotes a colonial commander in New York in 1776 proclaiming that “any who refuse to take Part in preserving the City will be judged unworthy to inhabit it.”

See something, say something, or move to New Jersey, I guess. Anyway, this early mode of community self-policing was the source of the expression “hue and cry” -- in which “hue” meant “horn,” the instrument watchmen used to communicate. “Patterns of repetition, tone and emphasis allowed patrols in disparate communities to announce a criminal’s presence,” Reeves says, “and direct the dispersal of a number of civilian patrols.” Later, printed “hue and cry” bulletins performed a similar function in circulating information about wanted criminals over much wider areas.

So conditions emerged in which law enforcement could be practiced as a regular, organized activity in which specialized bodies of armed men were part of a social division of labor in tandem with courts and prisons. In principle, at least, that would be more efficient and perhaps also fairer than the earlier ad hoc practice of rounding up a crowd prepared to deal out rough justice on the spot.

At the same time, having a police force separate from the rest of the population imposed its own problems -- to which technology at times seemed to provide answers before opening up new difficulties. Reeves’s chapters on the integration of the telephone into police practice are especially interesting. The public telephone seemed like a promising way to multiply the impact of the force by directing cops quickly and precisely to where they were needed. Doing more with less sounded good in the 19th century, too.

But the police did not trust the public’s ability to use the (expensive) new technology wisely or responsibly. The phones could be accessed only by using keys, a small number of which were distributed to worthy citizens and marked to indicate which key belonged to which recipient. The phone line went directly to police headquarters; furthermore, once the phone was opened, the key could only be removed by an officer. Some models had buttons for what you were calling to report -- 6 for murder, for example, or 11 for fire. Sexual assault is noticeably absent from the dial appearing in one of the illustrations.

Developments tracked in later chapters (such as neighborhood watch programs and junior police clubs for children) follow a similar course of encouraging citizen participation in the effort to monitor and report on others -- while at the same time trying to limit and channel that involvement. Reeves’s larger point is that the array of surveillance and control systems established in American society since the Sept. 11 attacks is largely dependent on habits of complicity, or at least of acquiescence, that have been a very long time in forming.

And that seems true enough. But it may underestimate the difficulty now of imagining that things were different even before the turn of this century. That walking down a city street and thinking that any number of cameras might well be recording you would have seemed a bit deviant, if not pathological, once. Now it’s normal and, more strangely still, not even much of a concern.

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