Books

Review of Darin Weinberg, 'Contemporary Social Constructionism: Key Themes'

Like a t-shirt that used to say something you can’t quite read anymore, a piece of terminology will sometimes grow so faded, or be worn so thin, that retiring it seems long overdue. The threadbare expression “socially constructed” is one of them. It’s amazing the thing hasn’t disintegrated already.

In its protypical form -- as formulated in the late 1920s, in the aphorism known as the Thomas theorem – the idea was bright and shapely enough: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” In a culture that regards the ghosts of dead ancestors as full members of the family, it’s necessary to take appropriate actions not to offend them; they will have a place at the table. Arguments about the socially constructed nature of reality generalize the Thomas theorem more broadly: we have access to the world only through the beliefs, concepts, categories, and patterns of behavior established by the society in which we live.

The idea lends itself to caricature, of course, particularly when it comes to discussion of the socially constructed nature of something brute and immune to argumentation like, say, the force of gravity. “Social constructivists think it’s just an idea in your head,” say the wits. “Maybe they should prove it by stepping off a tall building!”

Fortunately the experiment is not often performed. The counterargument from gravity is hardly so airtight as its makers like to think, however. The Thomas theorem holds that imaginary causes can have real effects, But that hardly implies that reality is just a product of the imagination.

And as for gravity -- yes, of course it is “constructed.” The observation that things fall to the ground is several orders of abstraction less than a scientific concept. Newton’s development of the inverse square law of attraction, its confirmation by experiment, and the idea’s diffusion among the non-scientific public – these all involved institutions and processes that are ultimately social in nature.

Isn’t that obvious? So it seems to me. But it also means that everything counts as socially constructed, if seen from a certain angle, which may not count as a contribution to knowledge.

A new book from Temple University Press, Darin Weinberg’s Contemporary Social Constructionism: Key Themes, struggles valiantly to defend the idea from its sillier manifestations and its more inane caricatures. The author is a reader in sociology and fellow at King’s College, University of Cambridge. “While it is certainly true that a handful of the more extravagant and intellectually careless writers associated with constructionism have abandoned the idea of using empirical evidence to resolve debates,” he writes, not naming any names but manifestly glaring at people over in the humanities, “they are a small and shrinking minority.”

Good social constructionist work, he insists, “is best understood as a variety of empirically grounded social scientific research,” which by “turn[ing] from putatively universal standards to the systematic scrutiny of the local standards undergirding specific research agendas” enables the forcing of “the tools necessary for discerning and fostering epistemic progress.”

The due epistemic diligence of the social scientists renders them utterly distinct from the postmodernists and deconstructionists, who, by Weinberg's reckoning, have done great damage to social constructionism’s credit rating. “While they may encourage more historically and politically sensitive intuitions regarding the production of literature,” he allows, “they are considerably less helpful when it comes to designing, implementing, and debating the merits of empirically grounded social scientific research projects.”

And that is being nice about it. A few pages later, Weinberg pronounces anathema upon the non-social scientific social-constructionists. They are “at best pseudo-empirical and, at worst, overtly opposed to the notion that empirical evidence might be used to improve our understanding of the world or resolve disputes about worldly events.”

Such hearty enthusiasm for throwing his humanistic colleagues under the bus is difficult to gainsay, even when one doubts that a theoretical approach to art or literature also needs to be “helpful when it comes to designing, implementing, and debating the merits of empirically grounded social scientific research projects.” Such criticisms are not meant to be definitive of Weinberg’s project. A sentence like “Derrida sought to use ‘deconstruction’ to demonstrate how specific readings of texts require specific contextualizations of them” is evidence chiefly of the author’s willingness to hazard a guess.

The book’s central concern, rather, is to defend what Weinberg calls “the social constructionist ethos” as the truest and most forthright contemporary manifestation of sociology’s confidence in its own disciplinary status. As such, it stresses “the crucially important emphases” that Weinberg sees as implicit in the concept of the social – emphases “on shared human endeavor, on relation over isolation, on process over stasis, and on collective over individual, as well as the monumental epistemic value of showing just how deeply influenced we are by the various sociohistorical contexts in which we live and are sustained.”

But this positive program is rarely in evidence so much as Weinberg’s effort to close off “the social” as something that must not and cannot be determined by anything outside itself – the biological, psychological, economic, or ecological domains, for example. “The social” becomes a kind of demiurge: constituting the world, then somehow transcending its manifestations.

It left this reader with the sense of witnessing a disciplinary turf war, extended to almost cosmological dimensions. The idea of social construction is a big one, for sure. But even an XXL can only be stretched just so far before it turns baggy and formless -- and stays that way for good.

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Book offers tips to make academic meetings not just bearable, but productive

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An upcoming book argues that meetings -- one of the most loathed aspects of academic life -- are untapped sources of creativity and insight.

Column on new series of scholarly anthologies in ebook format

While looking around for scholarship on witchcraft trials just the other day (not in connection with current events, though with American politics you never know) I stumbled across Crime: A Batch From The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, an ebook in a new series from MIT Press that launched in May.

It reprints Edward Bever’s "Witchcraft Prosecutions and the Decline of Magic” from 2009, plus nine other articles on crime across the past few centuries. As far as I can tell, Batches is the first of its kind, at least in ebook format: a series of thematic anthologies drawn from the back files of scholarly journals that MIT publishes. Two other titles have appeared so far, Spies: A Batch from the Journal of Cold War Studies and The United States and China: A Batch from International Security. They’re all in an attractive and sensibly designed format, at the modest price of $6.99. (If an ebook series along the same lines as Batches does exist, I'll undoubtedly hear about it, and in that case will update this column with the pertinent information.)

Describing so ethereal an artifact as “attractive” may sound strange, but plenty of titles coming across my ereader have been real eyesores. (Both unnavigable and un-proofread, they've seemed overpriced even when free.) The MIT volumes have functional tables of contents, available both at the start of the file and via drop-down menu. Not only are there links between the text and endnotes but they work in both directions.

That is something you ought to be able to take for granted, but can't. No major investment of resources is required — just a little attention to detail when preparing the text. It’s time for readers to become a lot more aggressive about demanding adequate production values from the ebooks they bring out.

That's not to say that publishing volumes of papers selected from a specific journal is a new idea, even in digital format. For example, there is Classics from IJGIS: Twenty years of the International Journal of Geographical Information Science and Systems and ISO Science Legacy: Reprinted from "Space Science Reviews" Journal, V.

Apart from being specialized and quite expensive -- even by hardback standards, let alone for an ebook — they differ from the Batches collections by being stand-alone works, rather than part of a series. The title of SO Science Legacy: Reprinted from "Space Science Reviews" Journal, V would seem to imply that volumes I-IV are available to download by anyone with lots and lots of money, though in fact there’s just the one.)

And of course material from JSTOR and other repositories can be stored and read on a handheld device. Such material is almost always in PDF, however, which has limited flexibility compared to text in an ereader-specific format (e.g., mobi or epub). The latter allow the user to adjust the size of the type, and in my experience the option to highlight articles in PDF is luck of the draw, while that is less of a problem in the other formats.

A small but expanding array of scholarly periodicals now appear in ebook editions, including the American Academy of Arts and Sciences flagship Daedalus and the American Economic Association’s quarterly Journal of Economic Perspectives. Likewise with a number of law reviews, including many of the most prominent ones. Diverse as these journals are, they all routinely publish material of potential interest to non-specialist readers. Selling individual issues online gets the journal in front of a wide public without the hazards of newsstand distribution.

The new series from MIT is a synthesis of all the developments just listed — and, in some regards, an improvement on them. While reading around in the debut volumes, I was impressed both by the range of issues covered in each volume and by how well the selections complemented one another. For that, too, cannot be taken for granted. Collections of scholarly papers are often forced together rather than edited, much less integrated into a cohesive volume. Reading one is like attending a shotgun polygamous marriage among strangers, albeit not so memorable.

Jill Rodgers, marketing manager for MIT Press, made time to respond to my questions about the series by email. Her answers went some way toward explaining why the collections hang together better than compilations often do.

For one thing, the press monitors how its journals are being used. "We have access to traditional reports like article downloads and citations,” Rodgers told me. "Using Google Analytics and Altmetric.com, we also get a lot of information about what sites are bringing traffic to our website, who’s talking about our articles on blogs and in media outlets, how many people are bookmarking articles in Mendeley, who’s sharing abstracts via Twitter, etc.”

The possibility of using all that data to brainstorm ideas for ereader collections came up during a retreat late last year. The gestation time for the series was just six months.

"To create a Batch,” she said, "we first identify an article or topic that is getting a lot of play. We move to our archives and do some searching to see if we have enough content ... then reach out to the journal editor to see if he/she agrees the topic is skillfully covered by the journal and is willing to curate a final [table of contents].” Ideally the collection will include 6 to 10 papers; the titles now available contain 10 each.

While the marketing department’s data generated the topics, the collections' salience comes from the work of the journal editors who, "besides weighing the hundreds or thousands of articles available, will also compose an introduction” that explains "the impact of the articles within the field and their importance to the journal.”

The collection then goes into the digital production pipeline. “The first round of three Batches took 3-4 months from proposal to loading on Amazon,” Rodgers noted, "but I think that time period will shorten now that we’ve got the hang of it.”

Three more collections are nearly ready to go -- although they aren’t yet listed by online vendors, nor has any other information about them appeared. In other words, you read it here first. They are Gender and Sexuality: A Batch from TDR. (i.e., The Drama Review), Broadening the Domain of Grammar: A Batch from Linguistic Inquiry, and Responding to Terrorism: A Batch from International Security.

Rodgers indicated that the press has "another half dozen or so 'half-baked batches' that are in various stages.” She and her colleagues are now "also talking about taking requests for new Batches from readers.”

Other university presses are bound to follow MIT’s lead. For one thing, there is the appeal of being able to make use of material already accumulated by the publisher in its stable of journals. A proposal that involves getting content out of the digital warehouse and into revenue-generating circulation seems likely to enjoy the benefit of the doubt. But presses following the model of the new series really should mimic its standards as well.

And if they don’t…. well, let’s take up that topic later, in another column.

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Princeton U. Press's new digital offerings include 'Shazam for birds'

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As Princeton University Press transitions from print to digital products, will it soar in its foray into the app market?

Commentary on Marx-Engels Collected Works dispute

For five years now, off and on -- as massive financial crisis and spiking unemployment have given way to healthy corporate profits and a “recovery” characterized by a surge in low-wage job creation — the word has gone around that people are rediscovering Marx’s Capital.

Whether very many have the stamina to finish its opening chapter, on the commodity form, may be doubted. (Over the years I have been in at least three informal study groups that broke up before getting through the analysis of money in chapter three.) But anyone seriously considering making the trek through Capital might best start with Friedrich Engels’s shorter commentaries on it, including a number of reviews he published anonymously or under pseudonyms, as many an author’s friend has on Amazon.

Engels was not disinterested, of course, but as a critic he had the considerable advantage of knowing, from long and close acquainting, what Marx was trying to say.

You can find those fugitive pieces — and hundreds of other primary works, major and minor — at the Marxists Internet Archive, which has been around since well before the dawn of the World Wide Web. It makes available a constantly expanding array of texts by scores of writers (not all of them Marxists and some not radical by any standard) in an impressive range of languages, and all at no charge. The site draws more than a million readers per month. And yes, traffic has increased during the Great Recession and the not-so-great recovery.

More remarkable even than MIA's long-term survival as an independent and volunteer-staffed institution, I think, has been its nonsectarian, non-exclusionary policy concerning what gets archived. Much left-wing argument has traditionally taken the form of “But X isn’t really a Marxist! I am, and should know, and will demonstrate it now at great length.” (Quite a few documents in the MIA collection consist of just such claim-staking efforts.) MIA volunteers must occasionally shudder or roll their eyes at each other’s choice of authors to include in the archive’s holdings.

But they’ve agreed to “archive the controversy," so to speak -- and MIA’s users are all the better off for everyone’s generosity of restraint. The whole institution seems to embody what Marx himself identified as the goal of his work: a society of “freely associated labor," in which everyone gives according to ability and receives according to need.

And so it is all the sorrier a development that, as of tomorrow -- i.e., May 1st, the reddest of red-letter days -- the first 10 volumes of the English-language Marx-Engels Collected Works (MECW) will be taken down from the site, per a demand by the publisher Lawrence and Wishart.

After almost a decade of allowing its Marx translations to be freely available to a worldwide audience, the press is asserting its copyright in order to make digital access available to universities by subscription. MIA announced the impending change last Wednesday, giving readers one week’s notice.

The following day, I posted a notice and commentary on the situation at Crooked Timber. My tone was, it’s fair to say, a bit testy, but nothing like the tsunami of invective that hit Lawrence and Wishart soon after. A petition against L&W’s decision began circulating and soon had thousands of signatures, many of them accompanied by angry comments.

A friend who teaches political science in London mentioned that she’d written to the press, saying, "Should you really pursue this idiotic line of action, I and dozens of other people are quite happy to organise a boycott (to involve hundreds more) not only of your books, but of citing works published by you.”

Among responses to the news, it was definitely one of the more polite. On Friday, Lawrence and Wishart made a statement that sounded like it was being issued from a bunker under siege.

It characterized the protesters as believing that the press should, in effect, "commit institutional suicide.” Indeed, by that point some people were making the recommendation quite clearly. (For a calmer but quite pointed answer to L&W, see this reply, from the archive.)

Shooting yourself in the foot is seldom fatal, but reloading to fire a second time cannot be recommended. The publisher's aim is improving, however.

David Walters, one of the core group running the digital archive’s daily operations, tells me that Lawrence and Wishart not only demanded removal of the first 10 volumes’ worth of content, running to some 1,100 items, but even the tables of contents for the remaining 40 volumes. Now, the table of contents for a book can be an enticement to buy. With L&W we are faced, not with an overzealous protection of intellectual property, but evidence of diminished capacity to make a rational decision.

While Lawrence and Wishart's decision to re-privatize its translations was ill-advised and then some, its handling of the protest has been almost incomprehensibly self-destructive.

For the press has now dashed to smithereens its hopes of turning the MECW digital edition into a revenue stream. As of a few days ago, the entire collection became available in 50 PDFs that reproduce exactly the layout of the printed volumes -- at least for people savvy enough to know where to locate, and how to download, that sort of thing. Meaning, of course, that we late-adapters will probably have access in a few weeks.

In its statement last week, L&W portrayed itself as victim of "a consumer culture which expects cultural content to be delivered free to consumers." There is -- or rather, there soon will be -- some truth to that. People with no interest in Marx's critique of political economy or Engels's speculations on paleohistory are doubtless going download the PDFs anyway, just to assert that they can.

But what’s really been at issue throughout this past week’s furor is something utterly unrelated to a consumerist ethos. Lawrence and Wishart asserted its juridical rights to restrict, and to charge for, access to intellectual goods to which a great many readers have some reasonable moral claim -- scholars, that is, and Marxists, and Marxist scholars above all, perhaps. When I say they had a moral claim, it’s because those readers were largely responsible for circulating, teaching, and thinking about the texts.

That audience has not begrudged L&W its profit. On the contrary, we’ve given the press most of its business over the decades. Since 1987, the Marxists Internet Archive has expanded, extended, and deepened the public that’s interested in what the publisher has to sell. Establishing and running it, David Walters told me via email, "was a HUGE amount of work done by us before anyone at L&W even heard of the internet.”

The texts Marx and Engels wrote belong to whoever wants to read them. L&W is a delivery mechanism -- one among others -- and at present its viability is under review.

So, to wrap up, a message to David and everyone else at the archive: Thanks. And to Lawrence and Wishart: You’re welcome -- but seriously, cease fire immediately.

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Review of Paul R. Ehrlich and Michael Charles Tobias, 'Hope on Earth: A Conversation'

Last month, both the Pentagon and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the United Nations issued projections of the long-term impact of hydrocarbon emissions. They could "slow down economic growth, make poverty reduction more difficult, further erode food security, and prolong existing and create new poverty traps, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hot spots of hunger.”

That was the wording of the U.N. report, but the Pentagon sounded much the same, warning that climate change "will influence resource competition while placing additional burdens on economies, societies, and governance institutions around the world." The U.S. military characterizes these tendencies as "threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions – conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence."

Isn't such talk rather alarmist, considering all the research by scientists who reject the idea of anthropogenic global warming? Consider a recent survey of the literature appearing in scientific journals between 1991 and 2012. By my calculation, scientists rejecting the man-made climate change published an impressive 0.17 percent of peer-reviewed papers containing the phrases "global warming" or "global climate change." That's almost one-fifth of one percent!

Clearly the debate is far from over. But a couple of weeks back, an assistant professor of philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology named Lawrence Torcello argued, in a much-discussed article, that we have "good reason to consider the funding of climate denial to be criminally and morally negligent." His comments inspired an enormous amount of hate mail, including a number of threats of violence. Many of his correspondents were so outraged that they could not bring themselves actually to read the article, relying instead on second- and thirdhand accounts of Torcello's argument that refuted, not what he wrote, but what he could almost certainly be imagined to have intended to say.

Lest anyone feel too sympathetic to Torcello, I must point out that he failed to consider other explanations for why 99.83 percent of the scientific papers discussing climate change assessed it to be a real problem. It is possible, for example, that the researchers who wrote them were funded by the dirty tree-hugging hippies running the Pentagon.

Now, irony regarding any topic that elicits hate mail seldom turns out well. The people you don't anger, you tend to confuse. But it proves almost irresistibly tempting once a debate has reached a standoff. Pieces remain in play on the chess board but neither side makes any progress. That's where things stand now. More than two-thirds of the American public thinks that global warming is real despite the fact that it still gets cold in winter, just as they believe the earth to be spherical even though the front yard is, plainly, flat. Many will stick to those opinions, no matter how well-funded the denialists may be. (There's just no reasoning with some people.)

The more substantial discussion now seems to focus on the processes of climate change -- about whether, say, the continued melting of polar ice will trigger the release of enormous amounts of methane into the atmosphere. If so, how soon? And how fast, once it starts?

The particular mechanisms involved in climate change don't much interest Paul R. Ehrlich and Michael Charles Tobias in their book Hope on Earth: A Conversation, from University of Chicago Press. Ehrlich, the senior author, is a professor of population studies at Stanford University, where he is also president of the Center for Conservation Biology; Tobias is a writer and and documentary director primarily interested in environmental issues. But the question of the tempo of ecological disaster hovers over the discussion as a whole.

Ehrlich's The Population Bomb (1968) became one of the most ubiquitous of alarming paperbacks during the 1970s. It was the neo-Malthussian equivalent of one of Hal Lindsay's books about the End Times; extrapolating from birth rates and the rate of growth of food supplies, it projected worldwide famine and social collapse by about 1980. The promotional copy for Hope on Earth identifies Ehrlich as one of "the world's leading interdisciplinary environmental scientists," and undoubtedly he does remain one of the best =-known. But it is important to keep in mind that some ecologists were sharply critical of The Population Bomb even at the height of its popularity, seeing it as reductive and alarmist. Ehrlich overemphasized the environmental impact of poor countries while underemphasizing that of pollution and wastefulness in the consumerist societies. He also failed to grasp either the increased agricultural output that came with the Green Revolution or the environmental impact of the pesticides making it possible.

Ehrlich ventures no such prognostication in his dialogue with Tobias, conducted over a couple of days at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Colorado. As far as I can determine, the exchange took place during 2011, with revisions and elaborations of the transcript from both parties continuing over the following year. In spite of the protracted effort, it remains very much a conversation, for good and for ill. It roams without a map or a set agenda, however provisional, and the speakers are prone to data-dump monologues whose pertinence is not always obvious.

The conversation can be interesting when Ehrlich and Tobias butt heads. They approach environmental matters in distinct and sometimes conflicting perspectives. Tobias seems exemplary of a generation of environmentalists who emerged in Ehrlich's wake -- one for which preserving biodiversity and the wilderness are concerns inseparable from the defense of animal rights, as well as an attachment to ascetic mysticism. (He's reminiscent of the "level 5 vegan" who appears in one episode of "The Simpsons": "I won't eat anything that casts a shadow.") By contrast, Ehrlich clings fast to both a secular worldview and a belief that overpopulation, as such, is a major driving factor in ecological problems. He enjoys the comforts and conveniences available in advanced industrial society and can eat a chicken sandwich with few, if any, moral qualms. "The thing I hate about vegetarians," he says, "is that they're not put off by the screaming of cabbage."

One substantial issue sometimes emerges from their bull session, only to sink back out of view again. It could be called the problem of ecological triage: of how to decide what can be saved and what can't, and on what basis such judgments can be made.

"One of the troubles," says Ehrlich, "is that there are far too limited funds going into trying to save our life-support systems. It's a big allocation issue, how much to spend on description and cataloging and protecting species, as opposed to focusing on populations and the ecosystem services they provide…. Is it more important, for instance, to maintain pest control services in the grain baskets of the world or to protect narrow endemic species in tropical hotspots? Not an easy question to answer, and one with ethical implications."

And one that will come to the fore more and more over the next few decades, if the effects of climate change are felt on anything like the scale that scientists are discussing. Tobias characterizes it -- more generally, if also with more wool -- as the problem of "ascertaining those points of convergence wherein there are thematic flash points, positive pathways that the majority of scientists and people in general can agree upon in an effort to improve the conditions of life on Earth -- both for our species and others."

By "points of convergence" and "thematic flash points," he seems to mean whatever minimal bases of agreement about core values and priorities can serve as a basis for deciding how many arks can be built, and who gets a compartment. The upshot of Ehrlich and Tobias's discussion -- if not their actual conclusion, since they seem not to reach one -- is that no such basis can be identified at present. The effects of climate change may become severe within a couple of decades. The authors probably meant their title to be encouraging, but irony seems to have prevailed, because Hope on Earth offers precious little of it.

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Q&A with author of new book on how polarization has created stale higher ed policy but for-profits can get their way

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A new book argues federal lawmakers have failed to maintain a rational higher ed policy but come together on behalf of for-profits that spend generously.

Review of Frederic Gros, 'A Philosophy of Walking'

In December, the journal Brain Connectivity published a paper called "Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain," based on a study conducted at Emory University. The researchers did MRI scans of the brains of 21 undergraduate students over a period of days before, during, and after they read a best-selling historical page-turner called Pompeii over the course of nine evenings. A significant increase of activity in "the left angular supramarginal gyri and right posterior temporal gyri" occurred during the novel-reading phase of the experiment, which fell off rapidly once they finished the book -- the gyri being, the report explained, regions of the brain "associated with perspective taking and story comprehension."

Not a big surprise; you'd figure as much. But the researchers also found that an elevated level of activity continued in the bilateral somatosensory cortex for some time after the subjects were done reading. In the novel, a young Roman aqueduct engineer visiting the ancient vacation resort of Pompeii "soon discovers that there are powerful forces at work -- both natural and man-made -- threatening to destroy him." Presumably the readers had identified with the protagonist, and parts of their brains were still running away from the volcano for up to five days after they finished the book.

So one might construe the findings, anyway. The authors are more cautious. But they raise the question of whether the experience of reading novels "is sufficiently powerful to cause a detectable reorganization of cortical networks" -- what they call a "hybrid mentalizing-narrative network configuration." Or to put it another way, a long-term rearrangement of the mind's furniture.

It isn't a work of fiction, and I am but a solitary reader without so much as access to an electroencephalograph, but A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros, a French best-seller from 2011 just published in English by Verso, seems to have been setting up its own "hybrid mentalizing-narrative network configuration" within my head over the past few days. Maybe it's the weather. After so many months of cold weather and leaden skies, Gros's evocation of the pleasures of being outside, moving freely, in no particular hurry, stirs something deep within.

The author, a professor of philosophy at the University of Paris, has, among other things, edited volumes in the posthumous edition of Michel Foucault's lectures at the College de France. But the authority Gros brings to his reflections on walking comes only in part from knowing the lives and writings of ambulatory thinkers across the millennia, beginning in ancient Greece. He is a scholar but also a connoisseur -- someone who has hiked and wandered enough in his time, over a sufficient variety of terrains, to know at first hand the range of moods (ecstasy, monotony, exhaustion) that go with long walks.

It is a work of advocacy, and of propaganda against sedentary thinking. The first of Gros's biographical essays is on Nietzsche, who took up walking in the open air while suffering from migraine headaches, eyestrain, and late-night vomiting spasms. It did not cure him, but it did transform him. He might be the one spending time at health resorts, but it was contemporary intellectual life that manifested invalidism.

"We do not belong to those who have ideas only among books, when stimulated by books," Nietzsche wrote. "It is our habit to think outdoors -- walking, leaping, climbing, dancing, preferably on lonely mountains or near the sea where even the trails become thoughtful. Our first questions about the value of a book, of a human being, or of a musical composition, are: Can they walk? Even more, can they dance?" Long, solitary hikes such as those taken by Nietzsche -- and also by Rousseau, the subject of another essay -- are only one mode of philosophical pedestrianism. The precisely timed daily constitutional that Kant took each day, so regular that his neighbors could set their watches by it, has gone down in history as an example of his extreme rigor (one easily recognized even by the layman who can't tell his an a posteriori from his elbow). Gros adds a telling detail to this otherwise commonplace biographical fact: Kant took care to walk at a measured, even pace, since he was profoundly averse to sweating.

At the other extreme was the ancient philosophical school known as the Cynics, with its cultivation of an almost violent indifference to comfort and propriety. The Cynics were homeless vagrants on principle. They denied themselves, as much as possible, every luxury, or even convenience, taken for granted by their fellow Greeks.

That included footwear: "They had done so much walking," Gros says, "that they hardly needed shoes or even sandals, the soles of their feet being much like leather." When the Cynics showed up in a town square, their constant exposure to nature's elements gave a jagged edge to the harangues in which they attacked commonplace ideas and values. Gros sees walking, then, as the foundation of the Cynics' philosophical method:

"Philosophers of the type one might call sedentary enjoy contrasting the appearance with the essence of things. Behind the curtain of tangible sights, behind the veil of visibilities, they try to identify what is pure and essential, hoping perhaps to display, above the colors of the world, the glittering, timeless transparency of their own thought…. The Cynic cut through that classic opposition. He was not out to seek or reconstruct some truth behind appearances. He would flush it out from the radical nature of immanence: just below the world's images, he was searching for what supported them. The elemental: nothing true but sun, wind, earth and sky; their truth residing in their unsurpassable vigor."

Walking is not a sport, Gros takes care to emphasize. You don't need any equipment (not even shoes, for an old-school Cynic) nor is any instruction required. The skill set is extremely limited and mastered by most people in infancy. Its practice is noncompetitive.

But in a paradox that gives the book much of its force, we don't all do it equally well. It's not just that some of us are clumsy or susceptible to blisters. Gros contrasts the experience of a group of people talking to one another while marching their way through a walking tour (an example of goal-driven and efficiency-minded behavior) and the unhurried pace of someone for whom the walk has become an end in itself, a point of access to the sublimely ordinary. And so he has been able to give the matter a lot of thought:

"Basically, walking is always the same, putting one foot in front of the other. But the secret of that monotony is that it constitutes a remedy for boredom. Boredom is immobility of the body confronted with emptiness of mind. The repetitiveness of walking eliminates boredom, for, with the body active, the mind is no longer affected by its lassitude, no longer drawn from its inertia the vague vertigo in an endless spiral.… The body's monotonous duty liberates thought. While walking, one is not obliged to think, to think this or that. During that continuous but automatic effort of the body, the mind is placed at one's disposal. It is then that thoughts can arise, surface or take shape."

As for the clumsiness and blisters, I hope they will disappear soon. It's the practice of walking, not reading about it, that makes all the difference. But no book has rewired my bilateral somatosensory cortex so thoroughly in a long while.

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Review of Goran Therborn, 'The Killing Fields of Inequality'

In one of those cases where satire cannot trump cold hard fact, the power brokers and heavy thinkers who gathered at an Alpine resort in Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum last month expressed great concern about the danger that growing inequality poses to social stability everywhere. As well they might.

Strictly speaking, "widening income disparities" was only one of 10 issues flagged by the Forum's Outlook on the Global Agenda 2014 report, along with "a lack of values in leadership" and "the rapid spread of misinformation online." But a couple of concerns on the list -- "persistent structural unemployment" and "the diminishing confidence in economic policies" -- were variations on the same theme. Two or three other topics were related to income disparity only a little less directly

In case you didn't make it to Davos last month (my invitation evidently got lost in the mail this year ... as it has every year, come to think of it), another gathering this summer will cover much of the same ground. The 18th World Congress of the International Sociological Association -- meeting in Yokohama, Japan, in mid-July -- has as its theme "Facing an Unequal World: Challenges for Global Sociology." The scheduling of their events notwithstanding, it was the sociologists who were really farsighted about the issue of growing inequality, not the "Davos men." The ISA announced the theme for its congress as early as December 2010.

And the conversation in Japan is sure to be more focused and substantive. A lot of business networking goes on during the World Economic Forum. By some accounts, the topic of inequality figured more prominently in the news releases than in actual discussions among participants. It's almost as if all of Bono's efforts at Davos were for nought.

Available a solid six months before the sociologists put their heads together in Yokohama, Goran Therborn's The Killing Fields of Inequality (Polity) ought to steer the public's thinking into deeper waters than anything that can be reached with a reductive notion like "widening income disparities." Money provides one measure of inequality, but so do biomedical statistics, which record what Therborn, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Cambridge, calls "vital inequality." (Income disparities fall under the heading of "resource inequalities," along with disparities in access to nutrition, education, and other necessities of life.)

A third, less quantifiable matter is "existential inequality," which Therborn defines as "the unequal allocation of personhood, i.e., of autonomy, dignity, degrees of freedom, and of rights to respect and self-development." A big-tent concept of Therborn's own making, existential inequality covers the limitations and humiliations imposed by racism, sexism, and homophobia but also the experience of "people with handicaps and disabilities or just the indigent overlorded by poorhouse wardens or condescending socio-medical powerholders," among others.

While analytically distinct, the three forms of inequality tend to be mutually reinforcing, often in perfectly understandable but no less miserable ways: "Nationwide U.S. surveys of the last decade show that the lower the income of their parents, the worse is the health of the children, whether measured in overall health assessment, limitations on activity, school absence for illness, emergency ward visits, or hospital days."

The differences in health between the offspring of well-off and low-income parents "have been measured from the child's age of two, and the differentials then grow with age." A study of mortality rates among men in Central and East European countries shows a pattern of higher education corresponding to a longer life; men with only a primary education not only died earlier but were more prone to longstanding illnesses. (The patterns among women were comparable "but differentials are smaller, less than half the male average.")

Such inequalities within countries look small compared to those between countries, of course -- and Therborn piles up the examples of so many varieties of inequality from such diverse places that it becomes, after a while, either numbing or unbearable. Generalization is hazardous, but the pattern seems to be that a considerable variety of inequalities, both inter- and intranational, has sharpened over the past 30 years or so. Not even the author's own country of origin, Sweden -- so long the promised land for social democrats -- has been spared. Therborn's study of income developments in the Stockholm Metropolitan area between 1991 and 2010 showed that "the less affluent 80 percent of the population saw their income share decline, while the most prosperous 10 percent had their share augmented from 25 to 32 percent."

Furthermore, the share of the income that top tenth earned from playing the Stockholm Stock Exchange grew 282 percent over the same period. In Sweden as elsewhere, "the top side of intra-national inequality is driven primarily by capital expansion and concentration, and that at the bottom by (politically alterable) policies to keep the poor down and softened up to accept anything."

It seems unlikely that the CEOs, financiers, and politicians at Davos ever had it put to them quite like that. But Therborn seems equally unhappy with his own discipline, which he thinks has somehow managed to dodge thinking about inequality as such.

"Among the fifty odd Research Committees of the International Sociological Association," he writes, "there is not one focused on inequality." The closest approximation is the one on "Social Stratification," which he says "has mainly been interested in intergenerational social mobility."

That mobility having been, for the most part, upwards. But the distance from the bottom of society to its top verges ever more on the dystopian. In a rare flourish, Therborn invokes the alternative: "the positive lure of enlightened societies governed by rational and inclusive deliberation, where nobody is outcast or humiliated, and where everybody has a chance to develop his/her abilities."

To reach it, or even to move in that direction, implies a battle. "Nobody knows how it will end," he concludes. "Which side will you be on?"

I don't think he's asking just the people who will be there in Yokohama this summer.

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Essay on 'Creditocracy' by Andrew Ross and 'The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame' by David J. Blacker

Intellectual Affairs

Two great models of eloquence in the English language are The Book of Common Prayer and the translation of the Bible usually called the King James Version. A memorable passage that appears in both volumes crossed my mind while thinking about a couple of recent works of social criticism. (It also happens that Princeton University Press recently brought out The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography by Alan Jacobs, a professor of humanities at Baylor University, which a couple of readers have highly recommended.)

The text in question appears a couple of times in the New Testament as part of what's usually called "the Lord's Prayer." The Book of Common Prayer, the older of the two volumes, renders one line of the prayer as "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." The KJV rendering says, "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors."

To my ear, "trespasses" works better rhythmically, and it expresses the notion of "sin" or "offense" in a slightly more elegant manner. By contrast, "debt" or "debtor" expresses the same thought in a blunt and harsh way, and even conjures the old cartoon image of St. Peter recording good and evil deeds in a big ledger at the gates of heaven. Puzzled by the contrast, I consulted an extremely literal translation by J.N. Darby -- a Victorian Biblical scholar of uncompromising severity -- who suggests that "debt" is indeed what the original text says.  

Around the time Darby was working on his translation, Friedrich Nietzsche fleshed out an argument about the interrelationship among guilt, debt, and memory. Bringing up an atheist philosopher pretty well guarantees someone is now offended. But The Genealogy of Morals spells out in bleak and somewhat lurid terms a point left implicit in the prayer: The debtor is at the mercy of the creditor, who has the right (or at least the power) to inflict suffering -- even bloody revenge -- when payment is not made.

Whatever else it may signify, the brutal connotations of "debt" make forgiveness sound much more demanding and consequential than "trespass" would imply. (Awkward recollection: Learning the prayer as a little kid, I pictured God being unhappy that people were ignoring a sign on His lawn.)

Homo economicus never spent all that much time on moral accounting. But at least the old bourgeois virtues included restraint and a residual belief that self-interest was justified insofar as it served a larger good. The issues that concern Andrew Ross in his new book Creditocracy (discussed in last week's column) unfold in a world where debt itself is a kind of demigod, answerable to no higher power of any kind -- and certainly not to the state.

As the example of credit-default swaps on subprime mortgages in the go-go '00s made clear, the alchemists of finance are able to create profitable investment opportunities out of the risk (i.e., the degree of likelihood) of non-repayment -- making possible the creation of enormous fortunes from loans that cannot be repaid, at least not in full. That is but one link in a complex chain of debt-creation. Should the speculative bubble burst, the job of preventing economic meltdown falls to the government (which already has its own deficits, of course) at whatever risk to allocations for education, infrastructure, etc.

Add to it an average household debt that, Ross notes, grew from 43 percent of gross domestic product in 1980 to 97 percent in 2008 -- across three decades of stagnating wages. Throughout that period, 60 percent of income gains went to the country's wealthiest 1 percent -- a trend that changed dramatically when the economic crisis hit. Since then, 95 percent of income gains have gone to that debt-creating (if not job-creating) sliver.

David J. Blacker, a professor of philosophy of education and legal studies at the University of Delaware, characterizes the situation with a simple image in The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame (Zero Books):

"Imagine a casino in which you play with the house money and if you win you get to keep all the winnings to yourself, whereas if you lose, the house covers your bets. The literally astronomical public sums required to continue this arrangement for the minutest percentage of the population is the proximal cause of the squeeze on public resources. Schoolchildren, the poor, the sick, the disabled, the elderly etc., must all sacrifice so elites no longer have to undergo the risks that are officially supposed to be inherent in their role as fearless capitalist risk-takers. ..."  But genuine competition and risk are reserved "for small businesses and other little people like private and public sector employees."

Ross responds to the debt-driven status quo by challenging a whole series of moral reflexes that have traditionally accompanied debt: the feelings of obligation and culpability, of shame and implied weakness, that the prayer rendered in the King James translation take as a given. When access to socially necessary goods (particularly higher education) is restricted or undermined by an economy making debt all but inescapable for countless people, someone ought to feel guilty when students default on their loans -- just not the students themselves. The next step is to call for large-scale fiscal disobedience: a social movement of millions of people pledging to default on their student loans. On the far side of that and other radical confrontations with the debt machine, Ross conceives the possibility of morally sound, humanely responsible systems of finance, based on communitarian social forms. Not utopia, perhaps, but a long way from here.

Massive default is a strategy I find it easier to admire, or at least to daydream about, than to recommend. It is not impossible that a million people might make such a pledge. Carrying out the action is another matter -- and if only a fraction see it through, the result is bound to be martyrdom of an uninspiring and ineffectual kind. In any case, I have no student debt to default on in solidarity, and calling for others to do so would be a case of telling them, "Let's you and him go fight."

Like Creditocracy, David Blacker's book was written in the wake of Occupy Wall Street. But where Ross occasionally sounds like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon -- with his vision of a mutualist society of small producers, exchanging goods and services with a new form of money that doesn't promote inequality -- Blacker thinks along much more classically Marxist lines. The predatory forms of financial speculation that led to the crisis five years ago will not be regulated out of existence, nor are they deviations or tumors growing on a fundamentally healthy economy. The casino will keep rewarding the high rollers when they win and shaking the rest of society down when they lose. Such investment in manufacture as continues to be made will need workers with skills and the capacity to adapt to technological developments -- but ever fewer of them.

Most of the population will be an object for social control, rather than Schooling proper. At some level most of us sense this already, making the whole notion of "education as investment in the future" an ever more problematic principle. Blacker has written probably the gloomiest book I have read in years, but in some ways it seems like a practical one. He is not a survivalist. He thinks pedagogy still has a role, provided it's geared to understanding the dire probabilities and finding ways to respond to them. It helps that Blacker is a sharp and forceful writer, giving his analysis something of the  vividness and urgency of an Old Testament prophet delivering warnings that nobody really wants to hear.

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