Flat World's shift in gears and what it means for open textbook publishing

Flat World Knowledge will no longer publish versions of its textbooks at no charge. How big a setback does the company's change represent for the 'open' movement?

Review of Michael Ohl, "The Art of Naming"

Not long after waking up in Eden for the first time, Adam receives an important assignment. “Out of the ground,” we are told, “the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.” Then he goes to sleep and loses the rib, and Eve shows up to keep things interesting.

Here, as ever, the narrative voice of Genesis is almost too efficient. The reader is left to wonder about crucial details of process -- and even literalists may be tempted to fill in the gaps. Thus, in Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown's Commentary on the Whole Bible (1871), we are informed that the Almighty “brought unto Adam not all the animals in existence, but those chiefly in his immediate neighborhood to be subservient to his use …” Normally Jamieson et al. stick as close to the words on the page as possible, but here I suspect they gave in a little to the pressure of 19th-century science. Explorers were constantly finding hitherto unknown beasts of the field and fowl of the air. Examining and naming them (let alone “all the animals in existence”) would take an implausibly long time, even for someone who lived more than 900 years.

Today we know of about 1,500 species of mouse. Nothing in the original text indicates that the Lord instructed Adam to concentrate on creatures “in his immediate neighborhood” and “subservient to his use.” But surely it stands to reason.

And, in fact, the task remains unfinished. My impression from Michael Ohl’s The Art of Naming -- published in Germany in 2015 and now out in translation from The MIT Press -- is that taxonomists are really only getting started. Ohl, a biologist at the Natural History Museum of Berlin and an associate professor at Humboldt University in Berlin, says that about one million animal species have been identified. Estimates of the total number of species of organisms of any kind, including bacteria, run to has high as a trillion, most not yet labeled. And hundreds of millions of them will probably stay that way until Homo sapiens goes extinct, even if that takes a lot longer than sometimes feels likely.

Meanwhile, as new species are discovered and named, the established identifications are subject to review and revision. “The oldest names from the latter half of the 18th and early 19th centuries, in particular,” Ohl writes, “are often accompanied by descriptions considered inadequate by today’s standards, which often make it incredibly difficult or even impossible to match these names with specific species.” In addition, a species might be “discovered” more than once and so acquire a number of names. And conversely, researchers sometimes come up with a homonym: the same name applied to different creatures.

“As it happens,” Ohl writes, this creates “a remarkably simple way to arrive at one’s own species names, without having to set eyes on any of the animals in question.” It’s a matter of locating a homonym in the scientific literature, writing up the mistake and presenting a different name for the more recently identified of the species. “Some scientists actually do this, combing through taxonomic catalogs in the targeted search for such inconsistencies, and they almost always find something,” even if they “don’t necessarily know much about the respective animal groups …”

Taxonomic opportunism “is frowned upon in the guild,” Ohl writes. His detailed but engaging account of the process by which species are named shows why. A species name is the product of work in the field and the lab, but also of checking the ever-expanding mass of taxonomic literature to confirm (as much as possible) that the species is really a new discovery. The right to attach a name to a species is earned, then, or should be. And furthermore, the name itself can carry a charge of personal significance. Ohl reports that when reading a paper announcing a new species, his colleagues in the field of taxonomy are especially interested in “the etymology section … [which] isn’t just a linguistic explanation, it’s also a mix of social media and gossip column.”

The most striking examples he gives are the descriptions Peter Jäger, a German arachnologist, has given the spiders he has discovered in Asia, including a dozen names “highlighting the ecological problems resulting from overpopulation.” Heteropoda zuviele contains the German phrase zu viele, “too many,” while Heteropoda duan incorporates the Laotian word meaning “urgent.” There’s also Heteropoda homstu, which encrypts an abbreviation for Homo stultus, “stupid human.”

His nomenclature is not always so earnest, as the hairy-legged creature called Heteropoda hippie may suggest. Heteropoda davidbowie pays tribute to the songwriter who created Ziggy Stardust and the spiders from Mars. Jäger also named a species after the German punk goddess Nina Hagen, whose style can be compared to the demon from The Exorcist taking possession of an opera singer, as shown in this spider-related performance.

The rules and traditions of taxonomy prove more flexible, even chaotic, than the lay reader is apt to imagine. The identification of thousands of new species per year makes it a field where neologisms are the norm, with rigor and creativity each having a share in the process. My references to Adam above was tongue in cheek, of course. But something the English theologian John Gill wrote seems close in spirit to The Art of Naming.

Naming the animals “was a trial of the wisdom of man,” Gill explains, “being an instance of great knowledge of them to give them apt and suitable names, so as to distinguish one from another, and point at something in them that was natural to them, and made them different from each other.” Let's hope the work can continue for at least a few more centuries.

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Review of Leo R. Chavez, 'Anchor Babies and Birthright Citizenship'

Reports of the forcible separation of parents and children at the border by U.S. immigration authorities tell only part of the story of the violence now being directed against hard-won norms of civil society.

To continue doing harm to children once the risk of long-term damage has been spelled out requires something worse than callous indifference. It verges on the deliberate use of cruelty as a deterrent. But suppose you manage to take as sincere the expressions of concern dragged out of Jeff Sessions by an interviewer earlier this week. It is important nonetheless to consider everything the U.S. attorney general says and does concerning immigration the in light of the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, which he has called "good for America."

The act established quotas favoring immigrants of Northern European origin while sharply restricting everyone else (or in the case of Asians, excluding them entirely). It was created in response to what Clarence Darrow called, in sarcastic but accurate terms, American "cries in the night of 'race suicide,' 'the rising tide of color,' 'the race is dying out at the top,' and 'torrents of degenerate and defective protoplasm.'"

The United Nations is free to call the detention of children separately from their parents as a violation of human rights. The administration doesn't care, and the AG only wants what's in the best interests of the protoplasm.

Though not the main emphasis by any means, Leo R. Chavez's Anchor Babies and the Challenge of Birthright Citizenship (Stanford University Press) makes very clear how little has been added to the stock of anti-immigrant rhetoric over the past 100 years. The eugenicist sentiments are expressed less openly now, but multiculturalism as a refusal to assimilate makes up the difference. "Although born among us," one nativist complains about immigrant communities, "our general instinctive feeling testifies that they are not wholly of us. So separate has been their social life, due alike to their clannishness and our reserve; so strong have been the ties of race and blood and religion with them; so acute has been the jealousy of their spiritual teachers to our institutions -- that we think of them, and speak of them, as foreigners."

The diction probably gives away that this point was made in another era -- the author was Francis A. Walker, superintendent of the United States Census of 1870 and 1880 -- but the sentiment is as contemporary as hysteria over the impending arrival of sharia law or the specter of "a taco truck on every corner." The alarms raised about alien fertility, criminality and disloyalty haven't really changed in content, even if you don't hear it much about those of Irish or Japanese descent now. A steep decline of birth rates among Latinas over the past decade or so ("both immigrant and native born," Chavez notes) ought to curtail demographic fearmongering, though it hasn't so far.

It is against this backdrop of seemingly perennial nativist obsessions that Chavez depicts the fairly recent emergence of the "anchor baby" trope, added to the American Heritage Dictionary in 2011 with the definition "a child born to a noncitizen mother in a country that grants automatic citizenship to children born on its soil, especially such a child born to parents seeking to secure eventual citizenship for themselves and often other members of their family." This definition was later tweaked to indicate that the expression is derogatory. Among its earlier uses, in the mid-'00s, was to warn that terrorists were coming to America to create sleeper cells disguised as families. (That claim has long since receded back into the fever swamps, along with all those Spanish-Arabic dictionaries supposedly found in roundups of undocumented workers.)

More recently, the term serves as the basis for efforts to revise or repeal the opening sentence of the 14th Amendment: "All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside." It sounds categorical enough. Born in the U.S.A. equals citizen of the U.S.A. The immediate purpose when the amendment following the Civil War was adopted was to establish the citizenship and rights of former slaves, but Chavez shows that it had roots in English common law. Anyone born in the kingdom was automatically a subject of the king, with the exceptions of children of ambassadors, diplomats and alien enemies, who were all under the same jurisdiction as their parents.

"The child of an alien, if born in the country," an article in the American Law Register in 1854 stated, "is as much a citizen as the natural born child of a citizen." In 1898, the U.S. Supreme Court made the continuity explicit by grounding the amendment in "the ancient and fundamental rule of citizenship by birth within the territory, in the allegiance and under the protection of the country." A few additions to the aforementioned common-law exceptions were made, including "children of members of the Indian tribes owing direct allegiance to their several tribes" -- a cunning instance of denying citizenship by pretending to respect another's sovereignty.

Recent efforts to get around the amendment's codification of birthright citizenship stress the reference to claimants being "subject to the jurisdiction" of the United States, on the grounds that the parents, as noncitizens, are not so subject. No more than a few seconds of thought are needed to see that this interpretation of the phrase, if valid, would negate the whole force of the amendment -- something it really does seem would have been noticed while it was being ratified, or at least when it came up in Supreme Court deliberations for the first time. A foreign national residing on U.S. soil is "subject to the jurisdiction thereof," in the words of the amendment, which goes on to specify that no state can "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction equal protection of the laws." Note the words "any person," used twice -- not "any citizen."

"The life of the nation should be a life examined," writes Chavez, and the attempt to delegitimize or whittle away at the principle of birthright citizenship merits the scrutiny of both its logic and its implications.

The effect of the "anchor baby" slur is to define a sector of the population Chavez calls "suspect citizens." Identified as unworthy of the rights enumerated in the U.S. Constitution, they are characterized as "a threat to the nation," making them plausible if not inevitable scapegoats due to an accident of birth -- at the hands of "deserving citizens" who have earned their place by virtue of having selected the right parents.

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Authors discuss new book on faculty role in curricular change

Authors discuss new book examining the faculty role -- and how professors view their responsibilities.

Review (continued) of Amy Werbel, "Lust on Trial: Censorship and the Rise of American Obscenity in the Age of Anthony Comstock"

He has long since passed into public memory as one name among others in H.L. Mencken's gallery of archetypal American rubes, mountebanks and busybodies — so perhaps it was a matter of time until someone tried, against all odds, to revive Anthony Comstock as a heroic character. Certainly he thought of himself as one. The authorized biography by Charles Gallaudet Trumbull, published two years before Comstock's death in 1913, bore the title Anthony Comstock, Fighter: Some Impressions of a Lifetime of Adventure in Conflict With the Powers of Evil. And if that sounds like the premise for a comic book -- well, of course it is.

Available on DVD and for preview on YouTube is an animated graphic novel called Outlawed! How Anthony Comstock Fought and Won the Purity of the Nation. With an animated graphic novel, not to be confused with cartoon animation proper, the camera lens moves across the images, panning and zooming as a narrator recites the text. Outlawed! completely ignores historical research and is based entirely on Trumbull's Anthony Comstock, Fighter -- long in the public domain but now adapted so as to spare you all that reading and page-turning.

A blurb endorses Outlawed! as a weapon in "the contemporary ‘Culture Wars’" designed with an eye to "recover[ing] the comprehensive approach to sexual ethics held by Comstock and his allies.” The point is aptly made. Pornography was never the Comstock Act's exclusive focus. It was explicitly framed to prevent the spread of information about birth control and abortion, and any device or method making them possible, and even to ban literature that questioned the existing norms and institutions governing sexuality, such as a treatise offered under the title Cupid's Yokes: or, The Binding Forces of Conjugal Life: An Essay to Consider Some Moral and Physiological Phases of Love and Marriage, Wherein Is Asserted the Natural Right and Necessity of Sexual Self-Government. And as Amy Werbel makes clear in Lust on Trial: Censorship and the Rise of American Obscenity in the Age of Anthony Comstock (published by Columbia University Press and discussed in this column last week), makers and vendors of gay and lesbian erotica were punished more severely than those marketing comparable heterosexual materials.

How would Comstock's "comprehensive approach to sexual ethics" be applied in the 21st century? I've tried to imagine it and keep getting scenes from The Handmaid's Tale.

According to the Outlawed! website, Comstock fought and won "the battle for national purity": a turn of phrase with sinister overtones no less pronounced for being, one hopes, unintentional. Either way, it expresses the familiar reactionary nostalgia for an era of secure authority and happy virtue. In fact, we are told that the moral and legal order that Comstock established "rid this nation of impurities for almost 100 years" -- that is, from the 1870s until whenever America started to go to hell in a handbasket full of birth-control devices.

Reality proves much more interesting. In Lust on Trial, Amy Werbel notes that nearly all accounts of Comstock's work have relied on "Comstock’s own self-aggrandizing numbers of defendants punished" and obscene materials confiscated. For many years, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, which he ran, received numerous and often sizable donations; in return, patrons could follow Comstock's progress not only in the newspapers but through the society's annual report. For his own purposes, Comstock kept a detailed set of records on each investigation and court case, filling three sizable ledger books.

Comstock's personal diaries went missing at some point, but Werbel has made use of the ledgers as well as searchable newspaper databases, allowing her to scrutinize more of his activity than he found it useful to publicize. She writes that "his arrest blotters are far more truthful" than the society reports: "American judges and juries, far more often than Comstock liked to admit publicly, threw out his cases or assessed paltry fines." At the peak of his success, in the years between 1887 and 1891 when he won 76 percent of his cases, "only 11 percent of defendants [were] sentenced to jail," and by last four years of Comstock's life, "his conviction rate was down to 40 percent." In fact his loss of influence over the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th was more pronounced than that: "Ultimately, the language of the Comstock laws was so expansive, subjective, and difficult to articulate and enforce that prosecutors and judges turned their attention to more easily won cases." (They remained on the books well after Comstock's death but were worn down as a more robust sense of First Amendment protections took shape.)

Indeed, Comstock's methods and motives inspired reservations even as his first pieces of legislation were passed. (He did not hold elected office but drafted laws for those who did.) Informed that supposedly obscene goods were available from a business, Comstock, who held an unpaid commission as special agent of the U.S. Post Office, would place an order under an assumed name; when the merchandise arrived, he would prosecute the offender. Rumors abounded that Comstock or those working with him might be opening packages and letters in transit. That seems to have been unfounded, though it clearly suggests a degree of public wariness over the breach of privacy his activity implied. Werbel also notes that the concept of entrapment had not been used much in American courts until that point, and arguably it did not quite apply to Comstock's investigations. But in some cases it worked, which may have been catalytic in making the claim of entrapment a more popular defense.

Besides a feeling that his practices were inherently dishonorable, jurists and laypeople came to complain that one man's sensibilities were claiming, and exercising, unaccountable influence over public life. At first, he was able to win convictions without the jury being able to examine the evidence (which, being vile and depraved, could only prove corrupting) and could have confiscated materials destroyed before the trial was finished. He scorned the idea that a connoisseur might be the best judge of a painting's worth.

Anthony Comstock didn't know much about art, but he knew that he didn't like it. “The nude, as uncovered by so-called art," he wrote, "is a web which has enmeshed many a youth to his or her ruin. At its best it has a tendency to suggest to the minds of the young and inexperienced thoughts of an impure and libidinous character. . . . in the heart of every child there is a chamber of imagery which the spirit of evil seeks to decorate with defilement.” Obscenity was obvious: "Its very presence poisons the moral atmosphere. Its breath is fetid, and its touch moral prostration and death. . . . [W]hen art thus lends its enchantments to vice the law quarantines it, and justice applies a disinfectant."

To which he might as well have added: "And I am the law." Authority of this kind is easier to assert than to defend. At some point, the fact that Comstock himself was being exposed to enormous amounts of obscenity on a constant basis was bound to be pointed out in an uncomplimentary way. When he took the Art Students League to court, the defense attorney challenged his capacity to form an opinion: “Comstock during most of his life has followed the single profession of looking for the worst. . . . [H]e is a degenerate so far as the consideration of certain subjects is concerned. He is blind to the beauties of life.” Offers were made to send him to Europe for a tour of museums, with no hurry in getting back.

One case he attempted to prosecute in Philadelphia was effectively derailed when someone from the district attorney's office interrupted a witness and announced:

"I believe in the Bible and in God and I know he made nothing imperfect. He made man in his own image, and by the fall of man alone came indecency. However, I can not reconcile my mind that the pictures before me are obscene, lewd, and indecent. They are of the highest state of art, and any man who says they are obscene ought to go to a less civilized community than Philadelphia."

Our mutton-chopped Culture War superhero's "Lifetime of Adventure in Conflict With the Powers of Evil" rewards study, if not for the reasons Outlawed! might suggest. For as Amy Werbel's book shows, the Comstock laws were not an inevitable product of Victorian-era inhibition. They were forged, enacted, and enforced by a canny political operator and self-mythologizer who -- though blessed with the energy and determination of the true fanatic -- met with resistance on a number of fronts.

Free-love advocates and artists jealously protective of the right to create were fully capable of challenging his arguments, of course, and did so more than is remembered. But he also ran up against an inchoate mood or attitude of suspicion towards anyone driven to enforcing some virtue while manifestly incapable of minding his own business. As Werbel so neatly puts it, "Few authors of obituaries wished God had waited longer before calling him home."

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Review of Amy Werbel, 'Lust on Trial: Censorship and the Rise of American Obscenity in the Age of Anthony Comstock'

A reference librarian of my acquaintance was once asked by a patron to locate an authoritative account of how Johannes Gutenberg -- after finishing up with the Bible -- applied his invention to the manufacture of pornography. It had the odd quality of sounding both preposterous and faintly plausible at the same time. The patron was sure he'd read it somewhere, but couldn't remember where, which is exactly the kind of problem reference librarians make their bones by solving.

But a thorough search of both print and digital sources turned up nothing. It seems likely that the patron had seen a reference to how pornographers tend to be early adopters of new technology and made an overly literal deduction from it. At the same time, however, "the intertwining of religion and pornography in diffusing communication technologies" is "far closer than might otherwise be suspected," as Jonathan Coopersmith said in a paper published in 1998. Besides the sacred and profane uses of the printing press, Coopersmith noted that "religious and pornographic images were the earliest and major uses of Stanhope lenses -- glass slivers which magnified images -- in the mid-19th century."

The struggle between piety and the libido in the age of mechanical reproduction is at the core of Amy Werbel's Lust on Trial: Censorship and the Rise of American Obscenity in the Age of Anthony Comstock (Columbia University Press). Making good use of recent monographic studies of mass media and the history of sexuality, the author, an associate professor of the history of art at the Fashion Institute of Technology, places the architect and chief executor of U.S. anti-obscenity law in a thick social and cultural context.

The variety and sheer abundance of erotic merchandise on sale in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th century is staggering: not only evidence of Yankee ingenuity but also proof that the sexual revolution of later decades was long in preparation. Stanhope lenses of the illicit variety -- "depicting a single [nude] female figure standing or sitting in a languorous pose … set against backdrops of Moorish architectural elements, holding peacock feathers, or in faux agricultural scenes" -- were among the tamer commodities available. There was a thriving and very profitable industry in sex toys such as, in Comstock's words, “‘dildoes (that being the trade name) made of stout rubber, and in the form of the male organ of generation, for self-pollution.” Their manufacture, advertisement and sale was subject to prosecution under the Comstock laws, though Comstock professed himself unable to understand who would buy them.

The limits of his imagination were no brake on his effectiveness. In the late 1860s and early '70s, Comstock's activity was confined to the Northeastern Unted States. Over a seven year period, he was involved "in seizing and destroying 134,000 pounds of books, 194,000 'bad pictures and photographs,' 6,250 microscopic pictures, and 60,300 'articles made of rubber for immoral purposes, and used by both sexes.' " (The puzzling expression "microscopic pictures" refers to Stanhope's.) His influence went national in 1873, when Congress passed "An Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, obscene Literature and Articles, of immoral Use" -- the legislation that became his namesake. Besides the trade in sexual imagery and writing, the Comstock Act took aim at the distribution of anything about or enabling contraction or abortion, and could even be invoked to prosecute material that denied the value of marriage. It was a law designed to perpetuate monogamy, procreation and guilt.

In short order, Comstock was named an official but unpaid employee of the U.S. Postal Service, his activity subsidized largely by donations from wealthy supporters who gathered to view samples of the immoral material he was seizing. While never as inventive about using new technology as merchants of the erogenous, Comstock was driven to use every venue available to him in advancing his cause. "If Comstock wasn’t physically in your hometown during his career between 1873 and 1915," Werbel writes, "he was there in your hometown newspaper, fighting the purveyors of vice on the streets and in court, weighing in as a critic of art, theater and literature, suffering editorial and physical attacks from his many enemies, being defended by ministers and moralists, and lampooned as a Puritanical knucklehead."

The degree of resistance to his crusade, even when enforced by federal law, is remarkable and merits more comment than I can give it this week; we'll get into it in the next column. Suffice it for now to say that the title of one of his pamphlets, "Morality Versus Art," is indicative of both his attitude and his Achilles heel. The manufacturers of sexual devices "of stout rubber" had very limited recourse in opposing him, while creative people did not. A satirical cartoon depicts Comstock as Saint Anthony -- triumphant over temptation like the early Christian monk of that name, or making quite a show of sparing others from it, in any event. A polemic by George Bernard Shaw included a reference to “Comstockery" as "the world’s standing joke at the expense of the United States.”

The dart must have hit the mark, because Comstock felt compelled to offer his own definition of Comstockery: “The applying of the noblest principles of law, as defined by the higher Courts of great Britain and the United States of America, in the interest of Public morals, especially those of the young.” It seems extremely unlikely anyone else has ever used the word in his preferred sense.

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Overview of fall books

While updating my running list of the books forthcoming from scholarly presses, I often notice connections among them. Often a theme or trend seems obvious -- the numerous recent volumes pondering Trump, for example -- though on occasion the pattern may exist only in the eye of the beholder, like the face of Elvis in a breakfast taco.

Here are a few clusters of titles scheduled for the next publishing season, with descriptions quoted from the presses’ catalogs and websites. Bon appétit.

The 50th anniversary of the worldwide social, political and cultural upheaval of 1968 naturally yields its share of recollections and appraisals. Among other things, it was a period of immense creativity in film. Christina Gerhardt and Sara Saljoughi, the editors of 1968 and Global Cinema (Wayne State University Press, October), acknowledge the pantheon of European and American directors but stress that “the influence of cinemas of the so-called Global South is pivotal for the era’s cinema as well.”

Also widening the angle of vision to take in more than the familiar Western image of the period’s conflict is The Japanese ’68: Theory, Politics, Aesthetics (Verso, September), a collection of documents and analyses edited by Gavin Walker. The Prague Spring and its crushing by Soviet tanks are among the best-remembered developments of 1968 -- certainly overshadowing the protests that spring in Poland and the repression that followed. The authorities halted publication of Zygmunt Bauman’s book Sketches in the Theory of Culture (Polity, September) and presumably sent it down the memory hole by the time Bauman himself was driven out of the country not long afterward. An uncorrected set of proofs for the book was discovered only recently, making possible its publication half a century after it was ready.

With Sketches being at least the third new volume of Bauman’s work to appear since his death last year, the sociologist remains as prolific posthumously as he was while alive.

Second-wave feminism did not start in 1968, but it picked up a great deal of speed and energy that year. Lisa Greenwald’s Daughters of 1968: Redefining French Feminism and the Women’s Liberation Movement (University of Nebraska Press, January) emphasizes two tendencies that emerged in France as the movement took shape there: one became individualist and intensely activist, the other particularist and less activist, distancing itself from contemporary feminism, leading to debates and battles “between women and organizations on the streets and in the courts.”

Debates and battles of a decidedly different variety exploded when second-wave feminism reached Indiana, Erin M. Kempker recounts in Big Sister: Feminism, Conservatism, and Conspiracy in the Heartland (University of Illinois Press, October). It met with conspiracy theories about subversion, collectivism and one-world government. Feminists “compromised by trimming radicals from their ranks,” for whatever good that did them. Anxiety tends not to accept compromise.

As if to embody the sum of all Midwestern fears, we have The Xenofeminist Manifesto: A Politics for Alienation (Verso, September). Authorship is attributed to Laboria Cuboniks, a collective “spread across five countries and three continents” seeking “to dismantle gender, destroy ‘the family,’ and do away with nature as a guarantor for inegalitarian political positions.”

A very ’68 agenda, on the whole. By contrast, Dianna E. Anderson’s Problematic: How Toxic Callout Culture Is Destroying Feminism (Nebraska, September) seems closer in spirit to the sort of chastened liberalism of subsequent decades, embarrassed by the excesses of its youth and willing to settle for considerably less than utopia. “Too often feminist criticism has come to mean seeing only the bad elements of women-centric pop culture and never the good,” the argument goes. Against an “insistence on feminist ideological purity,” Problematic endorses “new, more nuanced forms of feminist thought for today’s culture.” Forget Valerie Solanas! Rally to the leadership of Lena Dunham!

Finally, there’s Donna Zuckerberg’s Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age (Harvard University Press, October), which “dives deep into the virtual communities of the far right, where men lament their loss of power and privilege, and strategize about how to reclaim them.” Ordinarily I might take a pass on another chance to go on such a ride along; the stench stays with you for a long time. But Zuckerberg follows what sounds like an interesting course by focusing on how the classics of Greek and Roman antiquity are being enlisted in the cause:

She finds, mixed in with weightlifting tips and misogynistic vitriol, the words of the Stoics deployed to support an ideal vision of masculine life. On other sites, pickup artists quote Ovid’s Ars Amatoria to justify ignoring women’s boundaries. By appropriating the Classics, these men lend a veneer of intellectual authority and ancient wisdom to their project of patriarchal white supremacy.

Zuckerberg is a classicist with a Ph.D. from Princeton and is the founder and editor of Eidolon, an online classics magazine. (Also, because you are probably wondering: yes, Mark’s sister.) She maintains that “some of the most controversial and consequential debates about the legacy of the ancients are raging not in universities but online.” It’s an interesting premise, and I look forward to reading the book.

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Review of Ethan Tussey, 'The Procrastination Economy: The Big Business of Downtime'

It’s too soon to say if grayscaling will change my life, as is its implicit promise. Probably not, but it’s worth a try.

In case you are even farther behind on such things than I am, “gray scale” refers to a setting on mobile devices that removes all color, leaving everything on screen intact but visible only in shades of gray. Even the normally white field I’m typing in now is slightly muted. I have the sense of finding myself in an episode of The Twilight Zone.

Why do this? To gain a slight advantage over the cunning of our devices and apps. For they are designed to draw and hold the eye and pull the attention always into the digital flux, with color as part of the seduction. A bright-red circle pops up on the Facebook icon when there’s something new to see, for example -- as there almost always is. Mark Zuckerberg is Pavlov and has conditioned the brain to drool even when it knows better.

Gray scale leaves the device fully functional. The utter drabness will either boost a user’s concentration or prove distracting in its own right. The effect is easy enough to reverse, and it’s worth experimenting with as an option for those times when your brain needs every bit of momentum it can build up.

But it’s likely that someone is working even now to break through gray scale’s protective barrier and siphon off a little of the time and mental energy of people trying to remain diligent. A clear lesson of Ethan Tussey’s The Procrastination Economy: The Big Business of Downtime (NYU Press) is that a large, voracious and profitable cultural apparatus is working tirelessly to absorb and monetize every second of your attention it possibly can, and to accompany you anywhere and everywhere you might find yourself.

Mobile devices and social media apps are only the most overt elements. In his overview of the system, Tussey, an assistant professor of communication at Georgia State University, focuses on the network of content providers, subscription services, consumer-behavior monitors and data-mining algorithms that operate, so to speak, in the hidden depths of our screens. This grid generates continuous and targeted flows of entertainment, information, advertisement and ideological affirmation; it anticipates our wants while trying to shape our habits and routines as well.

The book’s methodological framework emphasizes that much of the material available on mobile digital devices is in fact produced and distributed with an eye to where and when it will be consumed -- at the workplace or the waiting room, on the commute to work, or in the living room. And the content is often tied to other (typically more prestigious) forms of media. Often they help sustain modes of fandom that amount to advertising campaigns in a different guise. The songwriter finding an audience on YouTube or the esoteric podcast that establishes a tiny but rabidly devoted following can still operate in the environment Tussey describes. But the trend is toward integrating digital content with established media brands.

In an altogether too familiar gesture, The Procrastination Economy insists that consumption itself is a form of agency: “Fans use media in the workplace to assert their conditions within the work ecosystem,” etc. Be that as it may, the book’s discussion of “second-screen” television -- in which viewers watch a broadcast program while also keeping an eye on synchronized content available on their laptops or tablets -- seems more telling. One form of agency that viewers certainly do exercise, when possible, is skipping commercials. Second-screen content serves, in part, to distract viewers who might click around to see what else is on; at the same time, it can give ad agencies a second shot at their attention, perhaps by offering something more specific to the individual’s social-media profile. In the end, Tussey seems to be describing a relentless process by which every second of waking life falls under market forces, every action or turn of the head rendered somehow monetizable.

It seems odd that a book called The Procrastination Economy -- which, furthermore, uses that expression at least two or three times on almost every page -- should have nothing whatsoever to do with procrastination. This reader, at least, was disappointed, for it is the vice to which I have given the best years of my life. If there’s one thing it might be personally beneficial to monetize, that’s it.

Alas, no. In fact Tussey writes about almost nothing that can be called procrastination, even in the chapter on digital “snacking” during the workday. “Rather than causing work distraction,” he writes, “mobile audio devices actually give workers tools to manage existing distractions through customizable offerings.” A noisy cubicle farm is more bearable if you can listen to Spotify on headphones, say. Management at a call center set up a firewall that “allowed employees to browse the internet for non-work-related sites for a set amount of time throughout the day,” to prevent burnout, with an option to get more browsing time if they completed a high volume of calls.

This sounds like Taylorism for the 21st century, not procrastination. Even less fitting examples make up the chapters on how people use portable devices while commuting or stuck in a waiting room. Perhaps the title felt too catchy not to use, but it never applies to anything the book has to say.

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Review of Alasdair Roberts, 'Can Government Do Anything Right?'

In 1952, a graduate student in sociology from the University of Chicago named Erving Goffman published a paper in the journal Psychiatry that I reread every few years with deepening respect. It analyzes one seemingly marginal and highly specific kind of person-to-person interaction, then pulls back, like a movie camera, to take in more and more of the terrain of everyday life.

The title, “On Cooling the Mark Out: Some Aspects of Adaptation to Failure,” uses two pieces of criminal argot resonant of a David Mamet play. A “mark,” in the lexicon of con artists at midcentury, was the target of a swindle. See also: dupe, chump, patsy. No synonyms come to mind for “cooling out,” which is a very specific operation sometimes necessary after the mark has been relieved of money. In a smoothly run con, the mark will accept both the sure-thing, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and, later, the explanation for why it failed. (The overseas company he invested in was shut down by corrupt officials who confiscated all the funds, for example.) “The mark is expected to go on his way,” as Goffman puts it, “a little wiser and a lot poorer.”

But, on occasion, the victim is left not just unhappy or angry but inclined to involve the police or other authorities. In that case, it becomes necessary to “cool the mark out,” which sounds like a very delicate kind of psychological intervention. For the mark has staked, and lost, not only his money but a good part of his self-image. The con flatters and emboldens the mark’s sense of being shrewd, canny -- able to spot an opportunity and to judge risks. But circumstances have proven otherwise, and left the mark feeling humiliated and vengeful. The cooler is adept at defining “the situation for the mark in a way that makes it easy for him to accept the inevitable and quietly go home,” says Goffman. He “exercises upon the mark the art of consolation.” Then on to the next con.

Goffman’s paper deftly shifts perspective to reveal the mark as someone in a basic human predicament, facing a bitter fact of social life that nobody, I suppose, escapes entirely. To wit: the experience of finding a gap between what someone believes about themselves and expects others to acknowledge, on the one hand, and unambiguous evidence to the contrary. That happens in an endless variety of ways, from the trivial to the catastrophic; rather than give examples, let me recommend you consult the paper itself. Goffman’s point is many of the jobs, rituals and routines necessary to keep institutions running and personal drama within reasonable limits amount to just so many variations on the theme of “cooling the mark out.”

Looking at it from the other end of the telescope, Goffman’s paper also implies that quite a lot of social life amounts to a series of bunco schemes. It is a perspective once associated with film noir and currently applicable to much of the breaking news from day to day.

But I’ve just come across an unexpected variant of it in Can Government Do Anything Right? (Polity) by Alasdair Roberts, who is director of the school of public policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The overall drift of his answer to the titular question seems to be “Yes, within limits, although admittedly not many people seem to think so, because they either expect too much from it or spend all their time obsessing about the failures.”

There are occasional expressions of cautious optimism: European integration and intra-European peace can continue despite E.U. wobbles; “judged by the number of attacks or the number of deaths, the current wave of terrorism in North America and Western Europe is less severe than that of the 1970s”; the U.S. dedicates “a smaller share of national income to defense than at any point in the Cold War.” For the sake of balance, perhaps, the author also expresses cautious pessimism about economic inequality, climate change and geopolitical rivalries. The search is on for a “new paradigm” in public policy to overcome the excesses of neoliberalism, just as neoliberalism overcame the excesses of the welfare state. In the meantime, things may get unpleasant, but “pragmatism, empiricism and open-mindedness” can and should win in the long term.

Here, then, is centrism at its most anodyne. So it’s a bit startling when, near the end of the book, the author calls government “a sort of confidence trick.” What sort? He explains:

Confidence artists know two kinds of tricks: the “short con,” a quick deception that yields a small reward, and the “long con,” an elaborate ruse that involves many people and plays out over a long time. Government is a long con. The aim is to persuade people that the state is durable and its authority unassailable … If the confidence trick works, leaders benefit, because it discourages resistance to their authority. But the rest of us benefit too. If we do not believe that there is stability and predictability, we are reluctant to make plans and undertake new projects.

So it's an altruistic racket? A con for the marks’ own good? The analogy is offered in an almost bizarrely uncynical tone, and without the critical implications that show around the edges of Goffman's analysis. I'm not sure what to make of it. But one implication comes to mind: it may be a bad idea to put a short-term con artist in charge of a long-term con. For the latter, a cooler is sometimes required. Even the most trusted fixer just won't do.

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Review of Robert Irwin’s ‘Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography’

The publisher seems not to have noticed, but Robert Irwin’s Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography (Princeton University Press) happens to appear on the 60th anniversary of the first complete English translation of Khaldun's masterpiece, The Muqaddimah, in three large volumes. An abridged edition of Khaldun’s treatise is available in paperback (also stout) from the same press.

Even in its condensed form, The Muqaddimah comes with a moniker that feels like a wry comment on the interminable demands of scholarship: the title is the Arabic word for “introduction,” since Khaldun (1332-1406) wrote it as a kind of methodological prologue to his much longer history of the world, composed during the heyday of medieval Islamic intellectual life. (Irwin is senior research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.)

Despite everything marking it as the product of a very different culture and era, The Muqaddimah is bound to impress the 21st-century reader, from the first page, as a work of integrative social science. Khaldun writes that the historians of earlier times are unreliable because they lacked “clear knowledge of the principles resulting from custom, the fundamental facts of politics, the nature of civilization or the conditions governing human social organization.” Having given these matters a great deal of thought as both a scholar and an experienced political operative, he was driven to work out a kind of sociological model of historical change, taking into account geography, law, economics and culture. The book is nothing if not encyclopedic, with its vast array of learning bound together by a core concept: asabiya, or “group feeling.”

Khaldun starts out from the intense bonds of social solidarity needed to keep human existence going from generation to generation in the face of everything nature has to throw at it. The laws, customs and skills of various communities -- their respective patterns of life and authority structures -- are both made possible by asabiya and serve to sustain it. For Khaldun, the purest and strongest form of asabiya develops among desert nomads. Communities that settle in fertile areas develop more prosperous economies and firmly established royal authority. Culture flourishes and grows more sophisticated -- and The Muqaddimah itself is very much a product of what its author calls a “sedentary civilization.” But over time, corruption sets in. The feeling of communal solidarity grows thinner and the people more sinful (which is more or less the same thing). “The toughness of desert life is lost,” Khaldun writes. “Members of the tribe revel in the well-being God has given them. Their children and offspring grow up too proud to look after themselves or to attend to their own needs … Eventually, group feeling is altogether destroyed.”

By then, the combination of prosperity and weakness invites conquest by nomads, which Khaldun regards as a good thing, on the whole. The nomads bring with them a firmer piety and a stricter moral sensibility; they provide a kind of asabiya transfusion. (Not by chance did the prophet emerge among people of the desert.) But then the process repeats. Khaldun sees history as cyclical; he takes what comfort he can from his discovery that it is at least intelligible.

Roughly half of the books about Khaldun available in English have appeared in just the past 20 years, including Bensalem Himmich’s novel The Polymath, which was the closest thing to a biography available until Allen James Fromherz, a professor of medieval Mediterranean and Middle East history at Georgia State University in Atlanta, published Ibn Khaldun: Life and Times (Edinburgh University Press) in 2011.

Khaldun did leave an account of his own life, or rather of his career: a listing of the eminent scholars he studied with and his various positions as judge, tax collector, diplomat and professor. Contemporaries describe him as irascible and arrogant -- though, as Irwin says, “he had a lot to be arrogant about.” Irwin’s biography (by my count, the second in English) shows that Khaldun’s life was not without incident. He served a two-year prison sentence at the hands of one employer and was driven into exile by another. The first draft of The Muqaddimah was composed while the author was lying low in a castle in Algeria. A few years later, he suffered the loss of his wife, daughters and library when the ship transporting them sank en route to joining him in Egypt.

Fromherz’s biography depicted Khaldun not only as belonging to the Sufi branch of Islam but also as achieving “awakening” about the course of history as part of Sufi mystical experience. Irwin is skeptical but will allow that circumstantial evidence strongly suggests Khaldun was a Sufi, even if he never explicitly identified as one. This detail is important given the overall thrust of Irwin’s book, which is that Khaldun’s modern admirers haven’t understood him very well at all.

“Though Ibn Khaldun was almost certainly a Sufi,” he writes, “this was not apparent to 19th-century commentators who mostly preferred to think of him as a rationalist, a materialist and a positivist.” The French scholars who first introduced him to the European public aimed “to strip Ibn Khaldun of his superficially medieval Arab identity and reveal him to be in reality a modern Frenchman and one, moreover, who would have approved the French Empire in North Africa.”

By the 20th century, sociologists identified Khaldun as a pioneer in their field. Arnold Toynbee celebrated The Muqaddimah as anticipating his own analysis of the rise and fall of civilizations. Marxists found Khaldun’s attention to economics admirably Marxish. One of the earliest monographs in English was by a disciple of Leo Strauss, the proto-neoconservative philosopher; it reveals Khaldun to have been no mere sociologist but rather a participant in the secret dialogue among philosophers down the centuries, interpretable only by those possessing the Leo Strauss fan club secret decoder ring.

In short, interpreters of Khaldun have been prone to remake him in their own images. Irwin’s biography is meant as an antidote by stressing the various elements that just don’t fit when trying to modernize Khaldun. Seeing him as a philosopher of history or a sociological theorist avant la lettre tends to secularize his framework, as if the citations from the Quran were ornamental rather than essential. He did not identify himself as a falasifa (philosopher); the word rendered as “philosophy” in the English translation of The Muqaddimah instead means “wisdom” or “what prevents one from ignorant behavior.” And the strain of moralism and pessimism suggested by Khaldun’s cyclical view of history is baked right in. “The entire world is trifling and futile,” he writes. “It leads to death and annihilation.”

That could be just a rhetorical flourish. But coming as it does from the pen of a man whose family drowned in the Mediterranean at the very time he was assuming a plum job in government service, maybe not.

Irwin’s biography may bend the stick too hard on some matters. The Muqaddimah still reads to me more like someone inventing sociology than it does the work of a pious man wringing his hands as the world goes to hell in a handbasket. But looking at the author from both angles may be necessary to see him in greater depth.

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