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Small colleges are putting the same administrator in charge of IT and libraries

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Small colleges are putting the same official in charge of libraries and campus technology. 

Mark Edmundson's new book calls for renewed emphasis on teaching

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Mark Edmundson's latest book is a battle cry to professors and students who want to preserve a "real education," increasingly under threat, he says.

Review of Julia Haslett, 'An Encounter with Simone Weil'

Philosophers have lives; saints have legends. No miracles are associated with Simone Weil (1909-43), and a glance at reference books on philosophy finds her listed alongside Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, her classmates at the  École normale supérieure. But she looks odd in their company -- in any company, really. Frail but indomitable, she was in the world but not quite of it. 

French intellectuals of her generation wrote essays on Marxism and the Spanish Civil War, while she worked in a factory and went to the front as part of an antifascist militia. She had an extraordinarily acute (some would say morbid) awareness of the depths and the extent of human suffering; it made comfort seem like complicity. Combine that sensitivity with her conviction that our world is the diminished or faulty image of a realm in which truth and justice are real and absolute – a Platonic notion, flecked perhaps with Gnostic elements -- and you have someone with a vocation, rather than a career.

Weil died at the age of 34, under what seem to have been suspiciously beatific circumstances: she succumbed to tuberculosis after months of refusing to eat more than the rations available to the French compatriots under German occupation. Her collected writings, which run to several stout volumes, range from pacifist essays and interventions in trade-union debates to reflections on atheism and mysticism (not entirely antithetical terms, in her experience) and studies of classical Greek literature and philosophy. Most of this work remained unpublished during her lifetime, apart from scattered essays in journals of no wide circulation.

At a couple of points in Julia Haslett’s film  “An Encounter with Simone Weil,” the camera focuses on a few lines of a manuscript, the words in French and Greek. Her handwriting appears small, precise, and highly concentrated – like Weil herself, by all accounts. “She was apparently unacquainted with doubt,” wrote Raymond Aron, a philosopher and political journalist who knew her in the 1920s, “and, although her opinions might change, they were always thoroughly categorical.” His choice of words may allude to one of Weil’s nicknames from their student days: “The Categorical Imperative in Skirts.”

“An Encounter with Simone Weil,” billed on its Facebook promotional page as “a documentary by Julia Haslett,” made the rounds of film festivals in 2011, and in the meantime the director (a visiting associate professor of cinema and comparative literature at the University of Iowa) has screened it at two dozen colleges and universities throughout the United States. It will be available on DVD and various digital platforms sometime in the next few months. Upon request, the director sent me a screener, indicating that she had just finished work on the French language version. The film is already available in Italian, with the German and Japanese translations due out this fall, and a Korean version in the works.

“Encounter” is at least as much a personal essay as a biographical portrait. Haslett’s fascination began when she came across a quotation from one of Weil’s letters: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” It was an ideal point of entry, given how often Weil’s aphorisms sound like one of Pascal’s Pensées, and also how much moral and intellectual significance the word “attention” turns out to have in her work.

But it also carried a strong personal connotation. In the voiceover Haslett tells us of her father’s suicide when she was young, and in a video clip her brother discusses his struggle with anxiety and depression. “My father's death taught me that if I don't pay attention, someone might die," she says -- an enormous burden to have to carry.

Although Weil cannot be said to lighten the load, she at least understood the stakes. “The capacity to give one's attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing,” she says in another passage that Haslett quotes. “It is almost a miracle; it is a miracle.”

In short order she read Francine Du Plessix Gray’s biography of Weil (published by Penguin in 2001) in a single sitting. "Here was this brilliant, deeply ethical young woman speaking truth to power, putting her body on the line for her convictions, and providing such an incisive critique of political and economic power,” she told me an in e-mail exchange. “And yet I'd never read her. That despite studying philosophy, religion, and history at Swarthmore College -- an institution that embodies the Weil-like values of rigorous intellectual inquiry and a deeply held commitment to social justice.”

In recounting Weil’s period as a left-wing militant in the early years of the Great Depression, “Encounter” shows Haslett going over film footage of mass demonstrations in the archives of the French Communist Party – searching, almost desperately, to catch a glimpse of Weil in the crowd, but with no luck. She visits the apartment building in New York where Weil lived for a few months in 1942, and interviews the (very) few remaining people who knew Weil, as well as one of the editors preparing her collected works.

The effort to establish a connection with the philosopher even extends to having Soraya Broukhim (an actress with some resemblance to Weil) read enough of Weil's work to improvise responses in a mock interview. The sequence is odd. By the end, the situation has become unmistakably awkward for both parties. When Broukhim complains that Haslett seems to want answers she can’t give, the effect is strangely revealing. For a moment, it’s not quite clear whether she’s doing so in character, as Weil, or in real life.

To call Haslett’s quest a kind of pilgrimage would be tempting, if not for the most striking thing about the film: its emphasis on her as a secular figure and an activist. Most people who become interested in Weil do so through the theological side of her work. Even her appeal for nonbelievers, such as Albert Camus, comes in large measure from an awareness of her "tortured prowling outside the doors of the Catholic Church, like a starving wild animal,” to borrow the poet Kenneth Rexroth’s apt characterization.

Weil’s spiritual writings “are certainly the reason she gets studied in this country,” Haslett acknowledged by e-mail. “For example, many of the annual meetings of the American Weil Society are held at theological seminaries and most participants are religious scholars or at least people of faith.” But for the director, “it was the way she combined such an incisive critique of power and her willingness to sacrifice everything to tell the truth as she knew it (by directly experiencing that about which she wrote) that drew me in so completely.… She became a guide for me through the very dark first decade of this century, when our politicians were dispensing with the truth and our media wasn't holding them accountable.”

The film gives due attention to Weil's religious passion, but suggests that her mystical turn came after deep disillusionment with radical politics. Haslett seems largely uninterested in the very difficult matter of Weil’s relationship to Judaism. (Her parents were so completely assimilated into French secular culture that they neglected to mention this element of her identity until she was about 10 years old). And the director treads lightly around the topic of Weil’s mental health, although she does briefly consider the possibility that the final period of self-denial may have been a kind of suicide by self-starvation.

Haslett makes her resistance to certain aspects of her subject’s life and thought explicit, saying in one voiceover that she felt “betrayed by Weil’s turn toward God.” This does not detract from the value of the film in the least.

On the contrary, ambivalence and discomfort are essential to any meaningful encounter with Weil. To borrow a remark by T.S. Eliot, whose grounds for admiration were as different from Haslett’s as they could be: “I cannot conceive of anybody agreeing with all of her views, or of not disagreeing violently with some of them. But agreement and rejection are secondary: what matters is to make contact with a great soul.”

For more information about the film, or to arrange a screening, see the Line Street Productions website.

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New book examines higher education through the lens of the zombie apocalypse

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Editors of new book discuss the zombie apocalypse in higher education.

Review of David Novak, "Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation"

Intellectual Affairs

The most intriguing author’s note I’ve seen in a while appears on the back cover of Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation (Duke University Press) by David Novak, an assistant professor of music at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Following those obligatory institutional coordinates, we read: “The fieldwork for this book involved attending all-night parties that were so loud, he sometimes lost his balance and had to have his hearing checked after a year.”

More remarkable, perhaps, is that he still has any hearing left. Novak became interested in the Japanese phenomenon of "Noizu" in the early 1990s, after a period of teaching English, and polishing his Japanese, in Kyoto. The term is a neologism in Japanglish (cf. Franglais) referring to the underground movement or milieu devoted to producing -- and enduring – squalls of atonal electronic sound blasted at incredibly high volume. Noizu stands in relation to hardcore punk or extreme heavy metal band something like the roar of a jet engine does to chamber music. Connoisseurs call the sound “harsh,” at least when they are praising a performance or recording. The "noisician" works with a set of electronic boxes that distort, echo, or clip the frequencies of a sound; they are sometimes connected to one another according to a plan, and sometimes by chance. “Outputs go back into inputs,” Novak writes, “effects are looped together, and circuits are turned in on themselves. Sounds are transformed, saturated with distortion, and overloaded to the point that any original source becomes unrecognizable.” By the end of the performance, “the circuit is overturned, the gear is wrecked, and the network is destroyed.”  

The point is to create, in Novak’s words, “the biggest, loudest, and most intense invocation of sonic immediacy imaginable” -- sometimes blasting the audience into “a state of hypnosis, dreaming sleep, or trance.” Enraptured or not, performers and listeners alike must get tinnitus. 

Both the author’s teaching position and the book’s subtitle contain the word “music.” But the question of whether Noizu is a category of music is a question of taste and, even more, of definition – including self-definition, since there are people in the Noizu scene who insist that it is an experience utterly distinct from music. The ambiguity of its status is heightened by the existence of an enormous body of recorded Noizu, including the limited-edition boxed set in honor of Merzbow, perhaps the best known and certainly the most prolific of Noizu artists. It contains 50 CDs. He has issued several times that many over the past three decades, so presumably it is a greatest-hits collection.

Seeing Japanoise in Duke’s catalog reminded me of being in a Greenwich Village record shop with a seemingly exhaustive selection of arcane musical sub- and micro-genres from around the world. It had a bin marked “Japanese and other noise music” This was in the late 1990s, which Novak indicates was the peak period of media exposure for Noizu within Japan itself, after a couple of decades of existence deep underground. For a long time Japanese noisicans performed in tiny venues and distributed their recordings on cassette tapes which circulated by mail through an international network of avant-gardists.

By the time it established a niche at that specialty shop, Noizu was available on CD. Despite having never heard of the Japanese scene, I felt like I’d already heard plenty of “noise music” over the years. There was Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, a notorious double album of guitar feedback released in 1975, which was either an homage to experimental composers like Stockhausen or Reed’s way of fulfilling a recording project in the most hostile way possible. In the 1980s, bands such as Throbbing Gristle and Einsturzende Neubaten tested just how much ear-splitting mayhem could be incorporated into something still vaguely recognizable as a song. For that matter, Noizu sounds like something the Dadaists might have come up with the Cabaret Voltaire almost a century ago, if they’d had the amplifiers and gadgets.

Novak knows all of that -- and plenty of other examples of aestheticized sonic chaos, besides -- but insists on the specific history and context of Noizu. He draws the distinctions a little too fine at times, but does so in the interest of creating a “thick description” of Noizu: an ethnographic treatment of it as the product of Japanese conditions, even (or especially) in regard to its international circulation.

No matter where you go in the world, the audience for extremely loud electronic noise is likely to remain pretty small. But the existence of “livehouses” – tiny performance spaces, scattered so randomly that nobody is likely to find one without very specific directions – meant that a gathering of twenty people might seem like a crowd. Combine that with an incredibly intense mode of listening fostered by clubs where jazz fans assembled after World War II to listen to new albums in reverent silence. Then add countless small, highly specialized record stores whose owners develop an exhaustive familiarity with the history of a given sub-niche.

The product, in the case of Noizu, was a scene far more lively and attentive than anything available to, say, the American creators and consumers of what the rock critic Lester Bangs celebrated as “hideous noise.” Novak describes a process through which the rumors of a vital Japanese subculture came to excite artists and musicians abroad (who had no idea of just how small that subculture was), while Noizu’s growing renown in the wider world consolidated its status as something both artistically credible and distinctly Japanese.

Feedback is generated when a sound system begins to amplify and intensify its own output, which makes it an apt term for both the noise of Noizu and the cultural process through which it transformed itself from a marginal variety of performance art into a recognized and distinctive aspect of Japanese culture.

Novak indicates that devotees can recognize the particular way a given noisician sets up the devices in his rig, and I have no reason to doubt it. Part of a cultural feedback circuit is the formation of very distinctive modes of subjectivity – in this case, one capable of experiencing sound so loud that it seems to knock the breath out of you as a manifestation of the sublime. In its penultimate chapter, Japanoise draws out the parallels between Noizu as a kind of extreme physical encounter with technological power and apocalyptic themes in postwar Japanese culture. Novak identifies the arc of a noise performance as one of “overload and collapse”: an aesthetic duplication of “how a mechanical society feeds human energy back into the machine and measure[s] just how deeply creative subjectivity has become embedded in this cycle.”

Japanoise draws on interviews with performers of and listeners to Noizu, both in Japan and abroad – and, of course, the author’s own extensive exposure to its harsh pleasures. The one thing conspicuously missing from the books is an analysis of the part played by music journalism in creating the cultural feedback. There really ought to have been a chapter on the fanzines, where the terms for understanding and discussing Noizu took shape. But Novak does emphasize the revival of the cassette tape as noisicians’ preferred means of distributing their work. It is unmistakably a reaction to the immateriality and hyper-availability of digital culture.

The phrase “overload and collapse” also suggests the experience of the “lost decade” (or decades, depending on who you ask) of unemployment and stagnation following the collapse of the Japanese stock market in 1989. That raises a question about what manner of unholy racket we can expect to well up elsewhere in the world, as artists come to terms with, as Novak puts it, "deeply creative subjectivity has become embedded" in the feedback systems all of us live in.

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Harvard Criticizes Historians' Statement on Dissertation Embargoes

The Office of Scholarly Communication at Harvard University has issued a strongly worded statement criticizing the recent controversial push by the American Historical Association to allow new Ph.D.s to embargo their dissertations instead of making them available in university open access depositories. The AHA has said that making the dissertations available could hurt the chances of young scholars of landing book contracts, which they need to obtain tenure. But the Harvard statement said that the AHA has provided "no evidence" to support this view. Further, the Harvard statement noted a recent blog post by Harvard University Press suggesting that making dissertations available online may increase the odds of their authors finding a publisher.

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Q&A with author of new book on litigation and higher education

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Author discusses themes of new book on the courts and higher education.

Google Makes Online Textbook Play

Google is making a play for the student textbook market. At the Wednesday unveiling of its new tablet, the Nexus 7, the company announced it would be adding e-textbooks to its online store and allowing e-textbook rentals. The company said it is working with Cengage, Wiley, Pearson, McGraw-Hill and Macmillan. Rumors of the company's entry into the textbook market had been floating in textbook industry circles ahead of the announcement. 

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Review of Michael Serazio, 'Your Ad Here: The Cool Sell of Guerrilla Marketing'

The most memorable thing about the 2002 science-fiction movie Minority Report was its depiction of advertising in a few decades -- in particular the scene of Tom Cruise hurrying through a mall, besieged by holographic, interactive invitations to have a Guinness or use American Express, and asking him how he liked the tank tops he’d purchased at the Gap. The virtual shills address him by name (the character’s name, that is) thanks to retinal scanners, which are as ubiquitous in the 2050s as surveillance cameras had become in the century’s first decade.

They are pop-up ads from hell, swarming like hungry ghosts to devour everyone’s attention. (The people Tom Cruise rushes past are presumably getting their own biometrically personalized shopping advice.) The scene feels uncomfortably plausible; it’s the experience of being on the Internet, extended into public space and rendered inescapable.

How effective the film is as social criticism probably depends on what you make of the fact that a quarter of its budget came from product placement. Minority Report’s critique of advertising turns out to be, in part, critique as advertising.

Now, I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that people have become so resistant to hard-sell advertisement (dodging TV commercials with their DVRs, ignoring or mocking how ad agencies target their desires or insecurities) that they have lost influence. By the 2050s, our psychic calluses should be really thick.

The bad news concerns what is taking the place of the hard sell: a range of techniques discussed at some length in Your Ad Here: The Cool Sell of Guerrilla Advertising (New York University Press) by Michael Serazio, an assistant professor of communications at Fairfield University.

“Cool” advertising, as Serazio uses the expression, does not refer only to campaigns that make a product seem hip, hot, and happening -- so that you will be, too, by buying it. The adjective is instead a nod to the contrast between Marshall McLuhan’s famous if altogether dubious categorizations of “hot” media, such as film or print, and the “cool” sort, chiefly meaning television.

A hot medium, goes the theory, transmits its content in high resolution, so that the recipient easily absorbs it through a single sense. A cool medium, with its low resolution, demands greater involvement from the recipient in absorbing the message. Someone reading Aristotle or watching "Citizen Kane" is more or less passively taking in what the hot medium bombards the eye with, while the “Gilligan’s Island” audience finds its senses quickened (auditory and tactile in particular, according to McLuhan) by a need to compensate for the cool medium’s low level of visual stimulation.

That makes as much sense as any of the sage of Toronto’s other ideas, which is to say not a hell of a lot. Nonetheless, Serazio gets as much value out of the distinction as seems humanly possible by adapting it to the contrast between the old-school “hot” ad campaign – with its clear, strong message that you should buy Acme brand whatchamacallits, and here’s why – and a variety of newer, “cooler” approaches that are more seductive, self-effacing, or canny about dealing with widespread cynicism about corporate hype.

A cool ad campaign, when successful, does not simply persuade people to buy something but creates a kind of spontaneous, intimate involvement with the campaign itself.  The consumer’s agency is always stressed. ("Agency" in the sense of capacity to act, rather than where "Mad Men" do their business.) The Dorito’s "Fight for the Flavor" campaign of the mid-‘00s empowered the chip-gobbling public to determine which of two new flavors, Smokin' Cheddar BBQ or Wild White Nacho, would remain on the shelves and which would be pulled. Bloggers and tweeters are encouraged to express their authentic, unscripted enthusiasm. “Buzz agents” are given free samples of a product, chat it up with their friends, then report back how the discussions went. (With word-of-mouth campaigns, the most important is authenticity. Fake that and you’ve got it made.)

And at perhaps its most sophisticated level, cool advertising will cultivate the (potential) consumer’s involvement almost as an end in itself – for example, by providing an opportunity to control the behavior of a man in a chicken suit known as Subservient Chicken.

Let us return to the horrible fascination of Subservient Chicken in due course. But first, theory.

Foucault plus Gramsci equals about a third of the stuff published in cultural studies -- of which “critical industry media studies,” the subspecialty into which Serazio’s book falls, is a part. The conceptual work in Your Ad Here is done with Foucault’s line of power tools, in particular his considerations on governance, while Gramsci seems along mostly to keep him company.

Advertising as governance sounds counterintuitive, given the connotation of state power it elicits, but in Foucault’s work “government” refers to processes of guidance and control that may be more or less distant from the state’s institutions. The teacher governs a class (or tries) and a boss governs the workplace.

Over all, “management” seems like a more suitable term for most non-state modes of governance, and it has the advantage of foregrounding what Serazio wants to stress: Foucault’s point is that governance doesn’t mean giving orders and enforcing obedience but rather “structuring the possible field of action of others” in order “to arrange things in such a way that, through a certain number of means, such-and-such ends may be achieved.”

Governance (management) in this sense is a kind of effective persuasion of the governed party (the student, the fry cook, etc.) to exercise his or her agency to perform the necessary functions of the institution (school, fast-food place) without being subjected to constant external pressure. Insofar as governance is an art or a science, it is through recognizing and anticipating resistance, and preventing or containing disruption. (Some remarks by Gramsci on hegemony and resistance also apply here, but really just barely.)

“Cool sell” advertising counts as governance, in Serazio’s book, because it tries to neutralize public fatigue from advertisement overload -- so that we’re still incited to spend money and think well of a brand. That’s the common denominator of viral marketing, crowdsourced publicity campaigns, plebiscites on snack-food availability, and so on.

It occasionally sounds like Serazio is criticizing these methods as manipulative, but I suspect that’s actually high praise, like when one horror fan tells another that a torture scene in "Hostel" gave him nightmares.

Which brings us back, as promised, to Subservient Chicken, whose role in promoting the Burger King menu remains oblique at best. But he undeniably garnered an enormous amount of attention -- 20 million distinct viewers generating half a billion hits. “By filming hundreds of video clips of a man in a chicken suit,” the author says, “and writing code for a database of terms that would respond to keyword commands for the Chicken to perform those videotaped actions, [the advertising agency] concocted something that was, its own words, ‘so creepy, weird and well-executed that many people who visited… thought they were actually controlling this person in a chicken suit in real life.’ ” I can’t help feeling this calls for more extensive Foucauldian analysis, but I won’t be sticking around to see how that turns out.

 

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A preview of what's ahead in scholarly books

Intellectual Affairs

Last week’s column began to preview the fall and winter offerings from university presses. The first batch included books on higher education, the digital and dead-tree humanities, and speculation regarding the mind and emotion.

Now we move on to race, class, gender, war, and sundry other topics of heated public interest. The very titles of certain volumes may outrage some people, which can’t be helped. I will opine a little, on the fly -- but the most interesting thing about the whole process has been looking for possible or implicit connections among the books. With luck, readers will come across a few titles of interest here they might not have noticed otherwise. Including the institutional affiliation of the authors and editors of this many books would have bogged things down too much, but for each volume there is a link to the publisher, which usually has a web page providing that information.

Democracy and its discontents are the focus of several new books on political theory and history. The most philosophical of them is by Étienne Balibar – one of Louis Althusser’s students and collaborators, as it’s impossible not to mention even after more than 40 years. Balibar sums up the deepest conflict at the heart of the constitutional nation-state by coining the neologism he uses as the title of Equaliberty: Political Essays (Duke University Press, Feb. 2014), originally published in France three years ago.

The eminent (and prolific) American political theorist William E. Connolly continues to think through the conditions and consequences of pluralism. His latest report, also from Duke, is The Fragility of Things: Self-Organizing Processes, Neoliberal Fantasies, and Democratic Activism (Sept.). Connolly worries that making the marketplace the ultimate arbiter of institutional legitimacy leaves us with a brittle and empty polity. Nadia Urbinati reflects on the same condition in Democracy Disfigured: Opinion, Truth, and the People (Harvard University Press, Feb.), with its criticism of “technocrats wedded to procedure, demagogues who make glib appeals to ‘the people,’ and media operatives who, given their preference, would turn governance into a spectator sport and citizens into fans of opposing teams.” (As a resident of Washington, I’d say that about covers it.)

In The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present (Princeton University Press, Oct.), David Runciman warns that liberal democracy -- hitherto capable of managing its economic and political troubles, and even emerging from them strengthened – remains vulnerable to unforeseen developments it has no guarantee of being able to fix. Pushing the discussion in another direction is Anti-Crisis (Duke, Nov.) by Janet Roitman, who questions the reliance on the concept of crisis in narrating our social, political, and economic ordeals.

It’s been said (by whom I can’t recall) that all really serious problems now are either too big or too small, too general or too specific, for the nation-state to handle them. Perhaps that explains why the political theorist Benjamin R. Barber -- whose Jihad vs. McWorld was one of the more prominent globalization books of the 1990s – now stresses the efficacy of municipal politics with If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities (Yale University Press, Nov.).

Biographer of Isaiah Berlin, champion of human rights, and erstwhile standard-bearer for liberals who rallied to Operation Iraqi Freedom, Michael Ignatieff had at last report returned to Canada to serve as leader of the Liberal Party. Non-admirers south of the border may reasonably have assumed, with relief, that they would never hear from him again. Indeed, to judge by one recent book and Inside Higher Ed's reports, some Canadians were of a like mind. But now Ignatieff returns to print – presumably invigorated from leading his party to massive, history-making defeat in the 2011 elections, when he also managed to lose his own seat in Parliament – with Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics (Harvard, Nov.) From lemons to lemonade -- on the double!

Scholars and warriors alike contribute to How 9/11 Changed Our Ways of War (Stanford University Press, Sept), edited by James Burk, and Jacob N. Shapiro’s new book analyzes The Terrorist's Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organizations (Princeton, Aug.). Promising “a groundbreaking look ahead at what may happen after the war in Afghanistan ends” (which could be soon, reportedly) David Kilcullen’s Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla (Oxford University Press, Oct.) identifies “four megatrends” at work in shaping the future of political violence by non-state forces. His use of the term “urban guerilla” calls to mind the 1960s and ’70s, when most of the developments that Lindsey Churchill discusses in Becoming the Tupamaros: Solidarity and Transnational Revolutionaries in Uruguay and the United States (Vanderbilt University Press, Jan.) took place.

Zaid Al-Ali draws a balance sheet on The Struggle for Iraq's Future: How Corruption, Incompetence and Sectarianism Have Undermined Democracy (Yale, Feb.), while Christopher J. Fettweis offers his own diagnosis of The Pathologies of Power: Fear, Honor, Glory, and Hubris in U.S. Foreign Policy (Cambridge University Press, Oct.). That is perhaps the most Noam Chomsky-like title ever attached to a book written by someone other than Noam Chomsky. The linguist’s political interventions come up for assessment in Anthony F. Greco’s Chomsky's Challenge to American Power: A Guide for the Critical Reader (Vanderbilt, Jan.).

A blurb for Exploring the Power of Nonviolence: Peace, Politics, and Practice (Syracuse University Press, Oct.) says that its editors, Randall Amster and Elavie Ndura, have assembled writings by “a modern-day who’s who of nonviolent thinkers, bring[ing] fresh new perspectives to the urgency and practicality of alternative recourses to violent conflict.” The catalog doesn’t indicate who is on that list. It can’t be a good sign for the state of the world that the only potential contributor who comes to mind is the Dalai Lama.

Blithe as its contemporary practitioners can often be, economics was once called “the dismal science” – a characterization that now seems at least as suitable for ecology. The fields converge in William Nordhaus’s The Climate Casino: Risk, Uncertainty, and Economics for a Warming World (Yale, Oct.).

But then they converge in life as well. Both economic and ecological issues are easy enough to infer from the subtitle of David Sedlak’s Water 4.0: The Past, Present, and Future of the World’s Most Vital Resource (Yale, Jan.). Something else ecologists and economists share, evidently, is an itch to extrapolate. Paul Sabin’s The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future (Yale, Sept.) looks at a famous wager between a free-market optimist and an environmentalist catastrophist.

It will be interesting to see if Walter A. Friedman reports any evidence of a hybrid species, the free-market catastrophist, in Fortune Tellers: The Story of America's First Economic Forecasters (Princeton, Nov.) Analyzing the history of policy misfires in WRONG: Nine Economic Policy Disasters and What We Can Learn from Them (Oxford, Nov.), Richard S. Grossman argues that terrible consequences follow when a particular ideology trumps attention to “cold, hard economic analysis.” Okay, but if you can find anyone on Wall Street who admits to ignoring cold, hard economic analysis in the interest of a particular ideology, I will trade your credit default swaps for a nice, newly foreclosed home.

Meanwhile, much further down the socioeconomic spectrum, we have a few assessments of the labor movement that seem like S.O.S. messages in book form. That’s definitely the case with Save Our Unions: Dispatches from A Movement in Distress (Monthly Review, distributed by New York University Press, Nov.) by Steve Early -- a freelance contributor to The Nation, Labor Notes, and In These Times, among other journals -- who is one of the two or three labor journalists whose byline I’m always glad to find. (For a while I also thought he was a great singer and songwriter, but that turned out to be Steve Earle.)

On the other hand, Jake Rosenfeld’s What Unions No Longer Do (Harvard, Feb) sounds less like an S.O.S. than a toast at a wake. Organized labor in the middle of the 20th century  "was the core institution fighting for economic and political equality in the United States," its publisher's description says. "Unions leveraged their bargaining power to deliver tangible benefits to workers while shaping cultural understandings of fairness in the workplace. The labor movement helped sustain an unprecedented period of prosperity among America’s expanding, increasingly multiethnic middle class." With the smallest percentage of workers in unions now in a century, Rosenfeld stresses the policy impact of labor’s decline: "curtailed advocacy for better working conditions, weakened support for immigrants’ economic assimilation, and ineffectiveness in addressing wage stagnation among African-Americans." In Degraded Work: The Struggle at the Bottom of the Labor Market (University of Minnesota Press, July), Marc Doussard describes jobs where employers routinely practice “denying safety equipment, fining workers for taking scheduled breaks, [and] requiring unpaid overtime.” It’s a fair bet that some of those workers are parents of the kids Walter J. Nicholl writes about in The DREAMers: How the Undocumented Youth Movement Transformed the Immigrant Rights Debate (Stanford, Aug.).

Its publication next month timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, Paul Le Blanc and Michael D. Yates’s A Freedom Budget for All Americans: Recapturing the Promise of the Civil Rights Movement in the Struggle for Economic Justice Today (MR/NYU, Aug.) revisits and updates A. Philip Randolph’s proposal for egalitarian reform. Ian Haney López proposes one explanation of the continuing and growing extremes of wealth and poverty in the U.S. in Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class (Oxford, Jan.).

In Tough on Hate? The Cultural Politics of Hate Crimes (Rutgers University Press, Feb.), Clara S. Lewis suggests that federal anti-hate-crimes laws have backfired in perverse ways, while John D. Skrentny points to the even more convoluted side-effects of anti-discrimination legislation in After Civil Rights: Racial Realism in the New American Workplace (Princeton, Jan.).

An interesting example of argument within the ranks of the conservative intelligentsia is Richard A. Posner’s Reflections on Judging (Harvard, Oct), which criticizes Justice Anthony Scalia’s judicial philosophy from Posner’s own perspective as both legal theorist and federal judge. Donald T. Critchlow revisits a largely forgotten chapter in the history of American conservatism in When Hollywood Was Right: How Movie Stars, Studio Moguls, and Big Business Remade American Politics (Cambridge, Sept.).

Two more titles looking at the history of the U.S. right wing – focusing on activists in the trenches at least as much as the big-name strategists – are Joshua C. Wilson, The Street Politics of Abortion: Violence, and America's Culture Wars (Stanford, Aug.) and Isaac Martin’s Rich People's Movements: Grassroots Campaigns to Untax the One Percent (Oxford, Sept.) Taking a long-term perspective on the American right’s foreign policy is Conservative Internationalism: Armed Diplomacy under Jefferson, Polk, Truman, and Reagan (Princeton, Sept.) by Henry R. Nau, who is implicitly in dialogue with Milan Babík’s Statecraft and Salvation: Wilsonian Liberal Internationalism as Secularized Eschatology (Baylor, Aug.) whether either of the authors is aware of it or not.

Enough politics! Let’s talk about sex. Or about sexual politics, at least. (Sorry about the bait-and-switch.)

Actually, “asexual politics” seems closer to the mark in the case of Celibacies: American Modernism and Sexual Life (Duke, Nov.) by Benjamin Kahan. Decoupling celibacy (if that’s how to put it) from assumptions about religious inhibition or repressed gay identity, Kahan maintains that celibacy is “a distinct sexuality with its own practices and pleasures.” Well, to each his or her own. Perhaps the author will be celibacy’s heroic equivalent of the now almost legendary German sexologist whose life and work Ralf Dose recounts in Magnus Hirschfeld: The Origins of the Gay Liberation Movement (MR/NYU, Feb.).

That said, the celibate lifestyle seems unlikely to face the kind of legal and political issues portrayed in When Sex Changed: Birth Control Politics and Literature between the World Wars (Rutgers, Nov.) by Layane Parish Craig, or Katrina Kimport, Queering Marriage: Challenging Family Formation in the United States (Rutgers, Dec.).

The early stages of family formation typically include reading one of the pregnancy manuals that Marika Seigel studies in The Rhetoric of Pregnancy (University of Chicago Press, Dec.), teasing out the genre’s history and subtexts. Jocelyn Elise Crowley thinks about how to make parenthood and employment compatible, rather than a zero-sum trade off, in Mothers Unite: Organizing for Workplace Flexibility and the Transformation of Family Life (Cornell University Press, May).

Sarah S. Richardson goes in quest of Sex Itself: The Search for Male and Female in the Human Genome (Chicago, Nov.) -- where we also find the coding that produces death, which is even more persistent. (Mortality has no equivalent of the option for celibacy.) Billy G. Smith offers one view of the Grim Reaper’s unrelenting determination in Ship of Death: A Voyage that Changed the Atlantic World (Yale, Nov.), his account of the yellow fever pandemic of the 1790s.

In The Thought of Death and the Memory of War (Minnesota, Oct.), Marc Crépon reflects on the desensitizing, depersonalizing effect of knowing about the mass slaughters of the 20th century. With Death and the Afterlife (Oxford, Oct.), originally delivered as the Tanner Lectures for 2012, Samuel Scheffler argues that we have a deep, even unconscious need to trust in the continuation of human life on earth long after we’ve returned to dust. He’s probably right, but I would still prefer not to think about it.

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