Good Old-Fashioned Nostalgia

Scott McLemee highlights another round of titles from next season’s offerings from university presses.

July 5, 2017

The last fall-books preview noted a cluster of forthcoming studies of what we might call surveillance society and its discontents. The expression “surveillance society” still has a slightly futuristic resonance -- with the sci-fi world of Minority Report (where the authorities not only keep an eye on everything in the present but anticipate individual behavior before it’s even carried out) as its imaginary culmination.

But it’s too late for cautionary tales now. The proactive digital panopticon is up and running, though still, presumably, in the beta version. Also catching my attention while looking over next season’s offerings from university presses were a number of titles zeroing in on social order and the forces assigned to handle its crises. One example is Writing the World of Policing: The Difference Ethnography Makes (University of Chicago Press, October), edited by Didier Fassin, which “brings together an international roster of scholars who have conducted fieldwork studies of law enforcement in disadvantaged urban neighborhoods on five continents.” (All material appearing in quotation marks in this week’s column is taken from publishers’ catalogs.)

While Fassin’s contributors focus on the “one of the most problematic institutions in contemporary societies,” Bernardo Zacka takes a wider view in When the State Meets the Street: Public Service and Moral Agency (Harvard University Press, September). Analyzing “the complex moral lives of street-level bureaucrats: the front-line social and welfare workers, police officers and educators who represent government’s human face to ordinary citizens,” he finds them too often compelled to “settle for one of several reductive conceptions of their responsibilities, each by itself pathological in the face of a complex, messy reality.”

Sometimes contradictory or incoherent norms are what create the complex mess in the first place. That seems to be the perspective Ingrid Walker brings to High: Drugs, Desire and a Nation of Users (University of Washington Press, October), which challenges the endless and clearly unwinnable war on drugs. Likewise, Alexandra Cox’s Trapped in a Vice: The Consequences of Confinement for Young People (Rutgers University Press, November) examines the contradictory and self-defeating aspects of “a juvenile justice system that is aimed at promoting change in the lives of young people, yet ultimately relies upon tools and strategies that enmesh them in a system that they struggle to move beyond.”

With a steady stream of death-penalty convictions overturned by improved forensic methods, capital punishment has come to exemplify “how inept lawyering, overzealous prosecution, race discrimination, wrongful convictions and excessive punishments undermine the pursuit of justice,” as Brandon L. Garrett put it in End of Its Rope: How Killing the Death Penalty Can Revive Criminal Justice (Harvard, September). In many places, capital punishment has been replaced with “what amounts to a virtual death sentence -- life without possibility of parole.” But arguably worse than that is the confinement Terry Allen Kupers documents in Solitary: The Inside Story of Supermax Isolation and How We Can Abolish It (University of California Press, September), based “some of the thousand inmates he’s interviewed while investigating prison conditions over the last 40 years.” (I wrote about another book on this subject here last year.)

Pitched at the level of cultural critique more than of policy analysis, Jackie Wang’s Carceral Capitalism (MIT Press, October) collects the author’s essays on “contemporary incarceration techniques that have emerged since the 1990s.” The topics include “the biopolitics of juvenile delinquency, predatory policing, the political economy of fees and fines, cybernetic governance and algorithmic policing” -- in short, the surveillance society at this stage of its development.

Also forming their own constellation among the fall titles were a few books on mood and emotion, with a bias toward the painful. Giulia Sissa tries to rehabilitate Jealousy: A Forbidden Passion (Polity, December) by putting an emphasis on the noun in its subtitle. The feeling has somehow acquired a reputation as “a symptom of feeble self-esteem … a disease to be treated, a moral vice to be eradicated, an ugly, premodern, illiberal, proprietary emotion to be overcome.” Instead, a tour of ancient and modern thought unveils how jealousy, “far from being a ‘green-eyed’ fiend, reveals the intense and apprehensive nature of all erotic love, which is the desire to be desired.” It might be interesting to see why the author thinks these are mutually exclusive options, though the argument wouldn’t do Desdemona much good in any case.

Another kind of suffering interests Peter N. Stearns in Shame: A Brief History (University of Illinois Press, September). An enormous amount of interdisciplinary work has been done on shame, especially in the past two or three decades, and if there’s anything like a consensus it would probably be that shame and sociality are tightly linked in human experience. And the author concurs. “Groups establish identity and enforce social behaviors through shame and shaming,” we read in the book’s description. “Yet historians often neglect shame’s power to complicate individual, international, cultural and political relationships.” In trying to remedy that situation, Stearns may have written a timely book, though I wonder if one on shamelessness might not be even more so.

Today the word connotes poignancy more than suffering, but Thomas Dodman’s What Nostalgia Was: War, Empire and the Time of a Deadly Emotion (Chicago, December) reminds us that nostalgia once referred to a severe and potentially fatal kind of melancholy. A less dangerous and more sociable variety emerged under French imperialism: “Frenchmen [who] worried about excessive creolization came to view a moderate homesickness as salutary.”

Finally, if ever the description of a book made clear how culturally specific (and to outsiders, puzzling) feelings of nostalgia can be, it’s the one for Richard Power Sayeed’s 1997: The Future that Never Happened (Zed, October). It was, it seems, the best of times, “now remembered by many as a time of optimism and vibrancy, quickly lost … when it seemed like Britain was becoming a more tolerant, cosmopolitan, freer and more equitable country.” By contrast, Sayeed “cuts through the nostalgia” and interprets 1997 as “a missed opportunity, a turning point when there was a chance to genuinely transform British culture and society that was sadly lost.” Does that really count as “cut[ting] through nostalgia”? To me it just sounds like melancholy in a slightly different key.

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