Wednesday, December 15, 2010

On eating


So I came across this post today, through a long circle of links upon links upon links, and it really hit hard for me. The post is from 2006, but it clearly is still relevant now. I think the advice in it is vitally important, and not just for when you're around people who might/do have eating disorders.

It was two things in the post (and the comments) that really got to me. One was this (italics in the original, bolding by me):

Model comfortable eating. Cook for them. Invite them over for dinner. Take them out to dinner. Make them pancakes or waffles for breakfast. Stop for snacks. Carry snacks. Go to farmer’s markets and festivals. Start potlucks or movie marathons or bakeoffs. Engage in activities which build appetite, like hiking or long walks on the beach. Make eating routine. Make cooking artful. Connect it to good company and conversation. Create safe space for food.

On the other hand, Calm down. Do not press food on your friends. Do not make your friends feel guilty for refusing food. Do not override their decisions about what, when, and how much they will eat. Do not scrutinze their portions or their leftovers. Do not harangue them about starving themselves, or make passive-aggressive comments about how they eat like birds. Most women are humiliated by this treatment; women with full-blown eating disorders live for it.

And this one, from a guy in the comments:

When I was dating, I used to worry about the women who would order small and eat sparsely: “Is she worried about becoming what she sees as ‘too fat’? Does she think eating is unladylike (and if so, what other sensual pleasures does she consider herself unworthy of)? If we end up in a relationship, am I going to have to put up with this three times a day?” This has nothing to do with a woman being at a particular size.

I want to come back to these in a minute, because I think the guy in the comments is missing something vital that is in the original post, and it's something that is integral to my own experiences. Which I will now elaborate, in order for this to make sense.

For five and a half years, I struggled with disordered eating (rather than an eating disorder). I was never anorexic, bulimic, or body dysmorphic--my "eating problem" (which is what I still call it) stemmed from social anxiety rather than from body image. When I was in public, when I was with friends, and even sometimes when I was with my family, I felt like I was constantly being evaluated by everyone else in the room. But the manifestation of that social anxiety in my relationship to food and eating specifically is, I think, is directly related to the discourses and social practices that also play a causal role in a whole host of body- and eating-related disorders.

For as long as I can remember, I have been skinny. I was skinny when I was six, I was skinny when I was 12 and I was skinny at 18 when I left for university. I'm still skinny now. I use the word skinny because I am not just thin--I am boney and often knobbly and I don't have many curves to de-emphasize that. When I was a kid, I didn't really care about it. I actually don't think I ever really noticed, until one day in grade five, a friend of mine told me that I was an anorexic. She said her mom said that skinny girls were anorexic and that they hated their bodies, and her mom was a nurse so she should know. At the time, I ate a lot and played soccer and ran around on the playground, so I told her her mom was full of it and that I wasn't. But I remember that moment distinctly, because it was the first in a long line of moments where my body and my eating habits were subject to scrutiny. I have received comments from friends and from teachers, from employers and colleagues, from significant others and from family members. And this is to speak nothing of the media, which consistently tells women that their bodies can never be good enough.

I didn't start out a disordered eater. I was picky eater, but I ate enough and until I was full, and I ate loads and loads of snack food as soon as I figured out how to sneak into the kitchen when my parents weren't looking. I just never weighed a lot. And even that would have been ok, because this society tells women that they shouldn't weigh a lot, that they shouldn't weigh a normal amount, and that they shouldn't really weigh anything at all. So I fit into that mold, just by genetic happenstance. Being thin exempts me from the effects of living in a world where "attractive" doesn't mean me. But it doesn't exempt me (or any woman) from living in a world where our bodies are up for public scrutiny at any time. And while I might have ended up with a social anxiety about public speaking or meeting new people, I didn't get those. My--sometimes overwhelming--anxiety was directly attached to eating, specifically in situations where people could see me or watch me. The anticipation of eating in public was enough to make me nauseous and lightheaded, because people would be watching me and evaluating me. And because I was so anxious I couldn't eat, and because I couldn't eat people thought I was anorexic, and because people thought I was anorexic, I got more anxious. While I'm in a much better place now than I used to be, there are still situations, comments, and moments in which I am completely overcome with anxiety in relation to food.

So what's the connection between this personal narrative and body image related disorders? I think it can be seen quite easily in quote from the guy who commented on the Feministe post. This man, whose comment went on to say that he was worried his stepdaughter would develop body image issues because of the culture we live in, opened his comment saying that he worried about women who ordered small and ate sparsely. He wanted to know if they were worried they would appear unladylike or fat, and he pondered whether he would have to "put up with this" at every meal. And this is where the problem is. Whether we are fat or thin or somewhere in between, whether we eat salads or hamburgers or steaks or soup, and whether we like our bodies or we don't, our bodies are always up for public comment and judgement. If we are thin, it's because we are anorexic or bulimic; if we are fat, it's because we're lazy or we're slobs or we don't "care enough" about our "health". Women's bodies (and our eating habits along with them) are subject to constant media scrutiny, to constant social scrutiny, and to the scrutiny of those closest to us. And we're not allowed to forget it, because if we eat "too little" someone will comment, and if we eat "too much" someone will comment, and if we don't eat the right food, someone will comment, and if we avoid the situation entirely, someone will comment. Hell, if we walk down the street, someone will comment.

That's what I loved about this article: it doesn't just apply to ways of talking or dealing with people who have body image issues or eating disorders or whatever crazy mishmash I had going on. It applies to everyone, all the time. Modeling comfortable eating is something we should all do, for everyone. We shouldn't press food on our friends, or sanction them for eating what we think is too much. We shouldn't comment on portion size or tell someone to eat (or not eat) a sandwich or try to underhandedly evaluate whether or not their choice of a salad (or a cheeseburger) reveals something sordid about their personality or their mental health. And most importantly, we shouldn't talk about weight so damn much, at least not the way we do right now. Not our own weight (unless in a safe, supportive context) and not about other people's. Certainly not about the weight and eating habits of strangers. Because part of--and it's definitely not the only cause, but it's at least significant--the reason that we have body image issues, and part of the reason we have eating disorders, and part of the reason I didn't want to eat in public is because we know, even before it happens, that we are always already up for evaluation and judgement. And we all know that in this society when women (and especially their bodies and bodily practices) are up for judgement, they very rarely come out on top.

Andy Goldsworthy's transient art

Every once in a while, especially when I'm in the generally stressed out state that grading puts me in, I like to turn on a documentary on good ol' Netflix. I've been a documentary hound for as long as I've been a non-fiction reader, but the stressed-out documentary choice has one very specific requirement: it can be about anything, as long as it's quiet.

Two nights ago, I found the perfect film for this purpose. Rivers and Tides is a joint Irish-German production about Andy Goldsworthy, a sculptor and environmentalist whose site-specific land art is some of the most beautiful I've ever seen. Working only with natural elements, Goldsworthy creates pieces that explore the ephemerality of nature and time, and often end up consumed by very environments from which he draws his inspiration:




As a sociologist who works primarily in the realm of the digital--and certainly in the realm of the modern--I don't often get the opportunity to think rigorously about nature. About the closest I manage is reading about mediated landscapes, or the social construction of frontiers. I also don't get a lot of time to think about art, although it comes up slightly more often. In spite of--or perhaps because of--this, I found myself riveted for the full two hour exploration of Goldsworthy's art. Early on in the film there is a sequence in which he attempts repeatedly to build one of his famous stone seeds, conical structures build from flat rocks. Three times in a row, the sculpture falls apart, and each time the tide on the beach where he is working comes closer to where he sits. The final product, eventually completed, ends up completely subsumed by the water of the bay, only to be revealed again when the tide recedes. It is both an astonishingly slow process and one in which we are reminded of constant movement of time.

Much of Goldsworthy's work is less permanent; he often works in ice, in leaves, and in sticks, in places not amenable to permanent structures. This type of impermanence in art can often come across as whimsical, but Goldsworthy's commentary throughout the film shows that he is interested in the ephemeral not because it is pretty, but because it is a window into collaboration with nature.


In a week where I've spent the majority of my work time thinking about technology, risk, and retaining a sense of 'place'-fulness in theories of the virtual, and most of my play time reading Rutsky's High Techne and Tichi's Shifting Gears (both about technology and art), Rivers and Tides was a profoundly beautiful reminder that the modern can be natural, and that the ephemeral and the eternal are as present in nature as they are in culture.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Quick Hits


The selection of NSF as the first target will send a chilling message to researchers. The YouCut Citizen Review site includes a link to the NSF's Award Search site, and a form for people to submit examples of offending projects.

'If you find a grant that you believe is a waste of your taxdollars [sic], be sure to record the award number,' participants are told. '[W]e will publish a report outlining the grants identified by the YouCut community.

The suggested search terms – 'success, culture, media, games, social norm, lawyers, museum, leisure, stimulus' – and the contrast drawn between 'worthy research in the hard sciences' and 'questionable projects' hint that researchers funded by the NSF's Directorate of Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences have the most to fear.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

James Schell on games and real life



Carnegie Mellon professor Jesse Schell on the intersection of games and real life. He starts at Farmville and ends up somewhere entirely different. I recommend watching the entire half-hour -- the takeaway from the talk is not what you'd expect at the beginning, and part of the enjoyment of the video is watching him get there. The future he imagines is both terrifying and appealing, and, I think, also very possible. Definitely worth the watch.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Quick Hits: tooling around on the internet edition

  • Chuck Klosterman's NYTimes piece on How Modern Life is Like a Zombie Onlsaught has been making the rounds on Facebook this morning. In a piece packed full of cultural insights, this one may have been my favourite: "Zombie love, however, is always communal. If you dig zombies, you dig the entire zombie concept. It’s never personal. You’re interested in what zombies signify, you like the way they move, and you understand what’s required to stop them". 
  • Early on in the Klosterman piece was a link to Alice Gregory's Sad As Hell in the literary mag n+1. While I am generally not a fan of "the internet is ruining society foreverrrr", I do enjoy a good piece of criticism on the subject of digital life. This falls into that category for me, as does an earlier NYTimes article by Gary Shteyngart, the author of the novel reviewed in Sad As Hell. 
  • And, just because I find it entertaining, check out the book most often purchased in combination with n+1's What Was the Hipster on Amazon. 
  • This makes me want to move to San Francisco
  • Garland of Tiger Beatdown (one of my very favourite feminist blogs) on the Privilege Denying Dude meme: "In social justice, not all tactics that are divisive are effective, but all tactics that are effective are divisive. That doesn’t mean we should set our phasers to “divide,” but when a tactic is labeled as “divisive” or “radical”, there is a chance it might be one worth considering. Effective tactics are divisive because the majority is most comfortable with activism that is ineffective." 
  • Sady, whose baby Tiger Beatdown truly is, also on the Privilege Denying Dude Meme: "It’s not like there are no problems with Privilege Denying Dude; our tendency to oversimplify ideological opponents is something I’ve spoken at tiresome length about, whilst being treated like an extremist bitch who subsists on a diet of sensitive dudes’ testicles and wants to personally come over to your house and burn everything you love and yell at you until you cry burning hot tears of shame...But at a certain point, you can’t hold enough public symposiums about your inner conflicts and your ideas about responsibility and your intentions. You can’t ever apologize enough; you can’t ever be careful enough; you can’t ever make enough Sympathy Faces and phrase enough statements as questions and say “that’s a reasonable point, but” enough, because there are always people who want to listen until it turns out they’re implicated." 

Friday, December 3, 2010

Merry Christmas! Have a book, Part I

My mother has a rule when it comes to Christmas time gift-giving. It goes like this: we are the family that gives books. When every other member of our extended family is engaging in a toy shopping extravaganza for the younger cousins, we are in our local Chapters (that's the Canadian Borders equivalent for my more southerly friends), stalking the aisles for the perfect book.

Buying books for people can be easy or it can be hard. It's easy enough if the person you're buying for has a John Grisham habit or is a fourteen year old girl with a penchant for the undead, but things get a little more difficult when you're trying to find a book for someone whose tastes are a little more diverse. Buying someone a book isn't just about what they like to read -- it's also a representation of who you think they are and what you want to share with them. If they don't give you a list, sometimes you have to do a little scrounging. Luckily, I spend over 9000 hours per week in bookstores because I have poor coping mechanisms and flipping pages keeps my heart rate down and my mood elevated, so I've seen a lot of books in my day. In lieu of the paper I'm supposed to be writing, here's your handy-dandy 2010 holiday book shopping guide, Part The First (what, you thought I could restrain myself to just one post?). Note: the one thing I am bad at when it comes to books is staying current, so this list might hop around a bit.


For your literary father who likes his prose poetic and his landscapes cinematic: 
Gil Adamson's The Outlander was a semi-finalist in last years Canada Reads competition (the winner, Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes is another excellent read), and for good reason. Set against the backdrop of the early 19th century West, Adamson's novel follows Mary Boulton, a 19-year-old woman who murdered her husband and is on the run from his two brothers. Tracked by bloodhounds, and wracked by her own delirious mind, Mary retreats from her crime, and her culture, to the wilderness of the Rockies. Adamson's style is lyrical, but her pacing is tense and her story populated with well-wrought portraits of the people who lived and died in the Canadian West. If you like your cinematic landscapes with a lot more blood and a lot fewer x-chromosomes, try Cormac McCarthy's masterful Blood Meridian. Or pick up Guy Vanderhaeghe's The Englishman's Boy.


For your teenage cousin whom you are trying desperately to keep away from Twilight:
There's been a lot of hullaballoo lately about Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games trilogy being the girl power answer to Twilight-mania, but for this recommendation I'm reaching back to my own past for Tamora Pierce's excellent (and empowering) Song of the Lioness quartet. Pierce is one of the few YA authors who openly deals with gender, sexuality, relationship violence, and feminism in all of her novels, but her first quartet of books, about a woman, Alanna, who disguises herself as a boy to become a knight (and a gifted mage to boot!) is the gold standard for fantasy novels about kick-ass women and the choices they make. I'd spend my time recommending the rest of her novels (The Immortals and The Protector of the Small quartets are much beloved), but there's only so much space for gushing, so instead I'll also recommend Maria Snyder's highly entertaining Poison Study. Biggest benefit of all of these recs? None of them contain sparkly vampires who watch you in your sleep.

For your history-loving grandpa who already knows everything about everything:
Philip Dray's There is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America showed up at just the right time for me -- I'd been publicly complaining about the lack of a popular history of labour not written by Studs Terkel when all of the sudden this book appeared on the Daily Show to satiate my desire. The book fulfills the promise of its subtitle -- at 784 pages, it is, indeed, an epic tale -- meandering through the early days of American industrialism all the way up until the 21st century. Dray's narrative is both panoramic and intimate, and never strays too far into polemic, maintaining a healthy attitude toward the tensions that have characterized the American labor movement from its very beginning. If your grandpa is less into unions and more into intellectuals, Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club has the benefit of being both an intellectual history and a rollicking good story.

For your younger brother who finished Harry Potter and is looking for something a little more grown-up:
The best thing that I can say about M.T. Anderson's The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation is that it is essentially perfect. The story of a young black slave living in Boston at the time of the Revolutionary War, Anderson's book is nothing short of brilliant. His characters are fully realized, his history is impeccable, his plot is compelling, and his politics are subtle enough not to overwhelm the narrative, but progressive enough to make this book a standout among YA fiction. Anderson's previous novel, Feed, is an equally accomplished futuristic dystopia, and both novels are worth reading no matter how old you are. Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book is also excellent. And, at risk of breaking my own rule, Nickelodeon's Peabody award-winning Avatar: The Last Airbender is a brilliant TV series that, like Octavian Nothing, transcends its YA status to tell a complex, harrowing, and beautiful story.

For your budding-feminist daughter who isn't quite ready for an encounter with Judy B.
Susan Douglas' Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism's Work is Done is a Backlash for the digital age. Just when Faludi's seminal work was starting to feel a bit outdated, Douglas' book asks how we square persistent gender inequality with the media message that feminism is done. With a glut of nth-wave feminist books out there by everyone from Feministing's Jessica Valenti to Ariel Levy, Enlightened Sexism stands out as a book that moves away from asking why young women don't identify as feminists and towards a critique of the culture that tells them that they don't have to. Or, do what I did when I was 16 and pick up a copy of bell hooks' Feminism is For Everybody. For the dude in your life looking for a little gender theory of his own, you can't get much better than Michael Kimmel's excellent Guyland. Or just pick up Justice and the Politics of Difference and admit you're a theory junkie from the start.

And with that, I'll leave be until tomorrow. Coming up: books for that friend of yours who "really likes music" but won't stop fucking listening to The Wall sixteen hours a day. Etc.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Backscatter machines and the management of risk

...in a completely administered world, superelevated safety standards and bureaucratic claims to perfection turn hazards that pass through the finest technological sieves into an internal threat to social rationality and systems. On the one hand, economy, law, science, policy with their present constitution and aims are not in a position really to dam up and forestall the hazards; on the other, the institutionalized safety pledge they furnish constitutes the embodiment, as it were, of the non-existence of hazards. Thus proof of the hazards becomes a proof of institutional failure. -- Ulrich Beck, Ecological Politics in an Age of Risk
Beck is, of course, speaking here about ecological risks, but when I first read this paragraph, my mind turned immediately to the current uproar over the implementation of new airport security measures.

Although I've expressed my opinions on the backscatter machines (as well as the enhanced pat-downs) privately, I've been trying to think through the airport as a site where multiple risks are subjected to different types of management. The most obvious of these risks is that of terrorist attack, which is subject to management by the Transportation Security Administration. But, as we've seen over the past few weeks, airports are also sites where other risks -- medical, sexual, and personal -- are managed. And I think one of the best ways to approach the issue is by looking at the backscatter machine as a risky artifact.

So what are the backscatter machines, exactly? Beyond being a piece of technology that emits x-rays and then produces an image from the radiation that bounces off the object to be imaged, what does a backscatter machine actually do? Reading the machine as an artifact in the context provided by Beck, we can think of it as a device that embodies both the presence and management of risk.

In Beck's formulation, the institutions of modernity are ill-equipped to manage both hazards (which are naturally-occurring) and risks (which are man-made). The technologies of governance are not designed to eliminate risk -- even if they were, they would be incapable of doing so. The discourses of contemporary science and politics necessitate a constant moving-forward, and it is this momentum that generates situations of risk. But a part of this moving-forward is a promise -- sometimes implicit, but often explicit -- on the part of these institutions that they will make the world safer, that they will guarantee safety. That they will eliminate risk. The problem, says Beck, is that when risks and hazards are proven to be real -- when the underwear bomber sets his pants on fire, or a terrorist plan is stopped before it is even begun -- this is evidence not of an averted catastrophe, but rather of an institutional failure to live up to their promise. Risk still exists. Therefore the institution has failed.

The backscatter machine is designed as a technical solution to this problem. Design a machine that will catch terrorists, and the risk is eliminated. But everyone knows that the backscatter machine cannot possibly catch all terrorists. It manages the risk, but does not eliminate it. And in doing so, it becomes a problematic artifact.

The backscatter machine also negotiates other risks, one that are not directly under the purview of institutionalized protection from terrorist attack. It is at once a manifestation of fears about radiation and health, as well as fears about privacy and embodiment. The arrival of the machine in airports, meant to alleviate the risk of a terror attack, brings to center stage the risk of cancer, the risk of sexual assault, the risks of surveillance and the sacrifice of privacy. The enhanced pat-downs accomplish a similar feat, at once working to manage terrorism while at the same time creating the circumstances under which women, children, people with disabilities, and other vulnerable populations are forced to decide which interventions they are willing to accept. In this sense, the airport becomes a site of the management of multiple, intersecting, and competing risks. A pregnant woman trying to manage the risk of radiation exposure and sexual assault is confronted by an institution attempting to manage the risk of terrorism. This problem can only be solved one way -- deciding which risk is more important and privileging the management of that over all others. This should be, and is (I think), an unsatisfying conclusion.

What Beck provides us, I think, is not so much a solution to the problem as an alternative way of thinking. The management of risk by technoscientific means has been a consistent (and consistently problematic) feature of modernity. By shifting our focus away from technological approaches to the management of risk and towards a more reflexive understanding about how risks are generated and how we can talk about them, we might be able to move away from always reaching for the scientific fix. Of course, this would require not only a rethinking of airport security, but also an overhaul of our entire institutional framework to drag it into a century where our problems are perhaps not best dealt with under the rubric of the nation-state.

Or we can just keep yelling at each other about porno-scanners and underwear-bombers. It's not up to me.

Stuff I've been listening to

It's the end of fall semester, which means burying myself in a pile of books and holing up until I emerge with two literature reviews and a pile of graded papers for my undergrads. While my go-to technique for dealing with the workload in the past has been to sit in front of a computer screen for 48-hours, injecting coffee into my veins and lamenting my poor time management skills, this year I've taken up the musical strategy. This involves picking at least five CDs and having them on non-stop in the background until you stop hearing the lyrics and start doing some work.

In other words, it involves inordinate amounts of time spent making playlists and the self-deception that this process is actually important for my work. Major players in this year's ongoing war between productivity and my sanity include:


Old Man Luedecke
Old Man Ludecke is the stage name of Chris Luedecke, a definitively not-old singer-songwriter and banjo player from Nova Scotia. His albums Hinterland and Proof of Love fit squarely in the Canadian branch of the folk-revivalist movement that includes performers like Gillian Welch and everyone who showed up on the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack. I'm a sucker for the banjo, and a sucker for the Maritimes, but even if I wasn't, Old Man Luedecke would be worth a listen. Check out a video of his song The Rear Guard here.

Old Crow Medicine Show
In keeping with the first recommendation (I really do have a thing for banjo and bands with 'old' in the name, ok?), Old Crow Medicine Show is another folk revival band based out of Nashville. Their songs -- which combine an old-timey sound with an excellent sense of the modern and absurd -- have been rotating on and off my playlists since 2007, but I haven't ben able to get enough of them lately. Their video for Wagon Wheel comes with healthy doses of irony, Americana, and a Dylan-penned chorus.

The Tallest Man on Earth
The Tallest Man on Earth (Sweden's Kristian Matsson) sounds like an early Dylan who decided to abandon the politics in favour of breezy, melodic tunes and cracklingly sharp lyrics. Like almost everyone I listen to on a regular basis, he clearly spent a lot of time taking inspiration from the American South, and, like a lot of folks coming from the outside, seems to have an ear for what exactly it is that makes that music so compelling. Matsson spent the last few years opening for Bon Iver and Jon Vanderslice, so if that's the kind of thing that floats your boat, check out one of my favourite of his tracks, A Field of Birds.

And lest you think I only listen to men who sound like they learned everything they know on the front porch of their grandfather's Kentucky homestead, never fear: I listen to women who sound that way too.

The Be Good Tanyas
The Be Good Tanyas have been my go-to band for times good and bad since my last year of high school, and I haven't gotten tired of them yet. Their song Light Enough to Travel was the soundtrack (along with Basia Bulat's The Pilgriming Vine) to one of the happiest and most important periods of my life. Frazey Ford's unique warble on The Littlest Birds has been my constant companion on roadtrips towards and away from friends and lovers, and Human Thing is still one of my favourite music videos of all time. But its Ootischenia, with its vaguely feminist lyrics (so tear the pages from the family Bible/it came down upon the women for survival) and its earthy, messy rhythms and harmonies that is the soundtrack to my paper-writing at 4:00 am on a Thursday night. If that hasn't convinced you, I don't know what will.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Beautiful books



As you may or may not have noticed (although I hope by now it's kind of obvious), I have a thing for books. Jonathan Lethem once said: "What I like are books in their homely actuality—the insides of the books, the mysterious movements of characters and situations and the emotions that accompany those movements. The play of sentences, their infinite variety". I would add to that description of the homely actuality of books the pleasure received from the book as a physical object. The way a book feels in your hands when you lift it, the smoothness of the pages, the smell of the binding glue in mass market paperbacks in an in academic trades, the art on the cover.


On this, the eve of my receiving a Kindle, here is an ode to the physical book. I am what Cory Doctorow calls a book-person. In a lecture on universal access and copyright, Doctorow described the relationship that some people have to books:
We are the people of the book. We love our books; we fill our houses with books. We treasure the books that we inherit from our parents and we relish the idea of passing our beloved books on to our children. We enforce worthy books on our friends and we insist that they read them. We even feel a weird, and possibly inappropriate kinship with people we see reading beloved books on public transit or airplanes...We know our tribespeople, the other people of the book, because they inhabit homes given over to books -- walls lined with books, piled on the stairs and beside the bed, even bathrooms filled with damp, swollen paperbacks. Our books are us.

I've never been one to pay much attention to the design of a home (anyone who's been in my apartment knows that I live in what has kindly been called an "intellectual fugue state", which is a nice way of saying that it isn't readily apparent that I pay attention to anything that isn't housed between two covers, like tidiness or cooking), but homes without bookcases feel empty to me. I am loathe to travel without at least five or six books -- hence the Kindle -- and it's a rare moment when any surface of my home isn't host to a haphazard pile of hardcovers and paperbacks.

Today, I bought a lovely cloth-bound hardback copy of Raymond Williams' Culture & Materialism, and it got me thinking about book covers. I've never been a believer that you shouldn't judge a book by its cover. You shouldn't judge them by only their covers, but a beautiful cover can be as much of a factor in my purchase of a book I'm not sure I'll like as an ugly cover is a factor in me putting it back in the shelf. And so, without further ado, here are some pictures of books that I love with covers I love. You can't feel their weight or touch their pages, but beautiful covers are one part of what I love books, in all of their homely actuality.







For more book covers, visit The Book Cover Archive. If your tastes run less towards beautiful books and more toward beautiful ways to house your books, try Bookshelf Porn.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Quick Hits

Thursday, November 11, 2010

They shall not grow old, as we that are left to grow old

Remembrance Day always makes me ruminative about the place of history in our current consciences, because it is one of the few holidays where we are explicitly told listen you have to remember this thing that happened ok and, one, people pay attention, two, there is nothing jamming the line like bbq's or parties or football games or chocolate eggs or presents. History: You should give a shit, who knew. -- Kate Beaton


Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Monday, November 8, 2010

How to think about science

From January to June 2009, CBC Radio's program Ideas aired a series from producer David Cayley, aptly titled How To Think About Science. I didn't manage to catch the episodes when they aired on the radio, but I did download the podcasts, and listened with rapt attention to and from classes during my last year of undergrad. Other than a history of science & technology class I took in the summer of 2006, I'd never thought much about the sociology of scientific knowledge. How to Think About Science changed all of that. David Cayley talks to the leading thinkers in the Science & Technology Studies pantheon -- Steve Shapin & Simon Schaffer, Ian Hacking, Bruno Latour, Peter Galison, and Brian Wynne are all represented, as are more popular names like James Lovelock and David Abrams.

After half a semester of relatively intensive systematic engagement with the STS literature, I've found myself turning back to the series to re-evaluate. My discovery: it stands up on a second, better-informed listening. It's an excellent introduction to STS thinking, sidestepping detailed description of empirical projects in favour of extended meditations on the nature of science, culture, knowledge and social life. Its not everyone's cup of tea, but for both the layperson for whom the series was intended and scholars interested in STS or the history of science and sociology of knowledge more generally, the series is an excellent (re)introduction to the most exciting perspectives in the field. Give it a listen!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Slavoj Zizek on ethical consumption

Now, I'm no Zizek fangirl -- I like to watch my Hitchcock without Lacanian psychoanalysis, although I will admit the man has an excellent flair for titles -- but this talk (and accompanying video, produced by the always excellent Cognitive Media) really gets to the heart of a lot of the issues that came up in my previous post about the politics of justice and the language of choice. Zizek argues that there is something fundamentally immoral about using private property to ameliorate the devastation caused by the institution of private property, and asks us to take a closer look at our own consumption practices. In a society characterized by what he calls cultural capitalism, we don't just make purchases anymore. "You don't just buy your coffee," he says, "you buy your redemption from being only a consumerist".


Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The public purchase of sociological stories

Folks who know me know I've got beef with evolutionary psychology. Here's why:


And that's not even getting into the complete drivel posted on the Psychology Today website every other day. But I've been on this rant-train for years. I have the bingo card and everything (useful for making those brain-fryingly awful comment threads just a little more enjoyable). So why bring it up now?

Well, today I happened across an excellent article from a 2007 issue of Sociology. Stevi Jackson and Amanda Rees' "The Appalling Appeal of Nature: The Popular Influence of Evolutionary Psychology as a Problem for Sociology" set my sociologist's heart all aflutter.

See, my major problem with evolutionary psychology is not that it's largely bull -- and sexist, racist bull at that -- because, honestly, I don't read enough evo pysch journal articles to know. All I know is how it's reported in the papers, and how folks respond to it in the comments. Here's an example (from the second Telegraph piece) for those of you who don't troll the science pages looking for new fuel for your rage fire:
Men who hate supermarket shopping now have the ultimate excuse to leave it to their mothers, wives, or girlfriends.
Today, a scientific study says that over many thousands of years evolution has designed women to excel when it comes to hunting down the most fulfilling food.
This is accompanied, of course, by a picture of a women in a supermarket with the wonderful caption "Women's shopping skills may have been honed on the African savannah". If you're checking, that one's on the bingo card.

The problem with this style of reporting is that it follows this particular formula: take one part Science is Truth, mix with two parts Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, and add a dash of "hey dudes, don't you hate grocery shopping, hurr hurr hurr", and you've got the evolutionary psychology reporting trifecta. Evolutionary psychology privileges the heterosexual reproductive imperative as the prime mover in the foundation of human social life. In doing so, say Jackson and Rees, evo psych "lays claim to the entire subject matter of our discpline, offering a purportedly more objective account of human sociality". And while sociologists have never been particularly good about defending our disciplinary turf, we do have the tools at our disposal to provide an alternative perspective to the origin myths evolutionary psychology proposes. Thing is, we tend not to use these tools in public.

Evolutionary psychology has a leg up on sociology as it is. It's claim to science-yness solidified with it's appropriation of the word "evolution" -- sociobiology just doesn't have the same ring to it -- evo psych hits on all four cylinders. It's 'evolutionary', so if you disagree with it you're an socialist/feminist anti-science ideologue; and it's 'biology', and we all know you can't fight your genes. The way it appears in the mass media, it's also comfortingly simple and easy to digest -- the way we are is the way we've always been, and it's no surprise that life on the African savannah looked a lot like the 1950's American nuclear family. It's a good story.

So what's a sociologist who insists on the primarily social and cultural genesis of gender and sexuality to do? According to Jackson and Rees, tell a better story. And tell it in public, rather than to each other in late-night wine-infused departmental bitch sessions. It's not evolutionary psychology as a discipline that's the problem here -- it's the domination of the science section of the news papers by stories that tell us women like pink because we used to gather berries. Sociologists have different, but equally compelling stories to tell about the same social facts. The thing is, our stories can be more complex, more interesting, and ultimately more emancipatory. In the words of Katherine Hepburn in The African Queen (via Jackson and Rees, once again): "Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to overcome".

Monday, October 25, 2010

What is terror for women?

Last year in the Democratic Republic of Congo, fifteen thousand women were raped.

On October 17 of this year, almost two thousand women joined together to march against the sexual terrorism that has been perpetrated against them almost fifteen years.


Two years ago, I had the privilege of attending a talk given by Stephen Lewis and Dr. Denis Mukwege of the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu at the University of Toronto. Over the last twelve years, Mukwege has treated 21,000 women, some of them more than once, for the damage that results when the women are raped -- often with foreign objects such as sticks, broken bottles, bayonets, and machine guns -- as a tactic of war. Lewis calls these acts the berserk lunatic predatory sexual behaviour of men, and that phrase only begins to describe the horror visited upon Congolese women by militias and soldiers engaged in civil war.

I wish that I had something eloquent to say about the unimaginable strength and bravery of these women, who marched against violence and terror. I wish I had words of enough virulence to describe my anger at the fact that, when we talk about terrorism in the Western press, we only ever talk about dirty bombs and airports, and never about the daily terror purposely inflicted by sexual violence -- sometimes by soldiers and contractors representing the so called enlightened West. But I don't think I have the words to represent my outrage as fully as Lewis did in his speech at SRI in the Rockies in 2008. His discussion of sexual violence against women begins around the 20-minute mark, and I have transcribed it at length here, but I encourage you to listen to the mp3 of the speech, because to hear a man talk about women's rights the way Lewis does is a rare and heartening thing:
I live in a feminist family, I love it. I believe to the end of my days that the feminist analysis of the exercise of male power is probably the most insightful analysis to explain much of what is wrong with much of this difficult world. And I must say that the more I’ve had the privilege of working in the international community, the more I have come to the conclusion that the struggle for gender equality is the single most important struggle on the planet. You cannot continue to marginalize 52% of the world’s population and ever expect to achieve a degree of social justice and equity: it’s just not possible.
And when you look at the damage that is done to the women, particularly of the developing world, through so many perverse realities whether it’s international sexual trafficking or female genital mutilation or child brides or honor killings or an absence of inheritance rights or an absence of property rights or an absence or laws against rape and sexual violence or an absence of microcredit to give women some sense of economic autonomy or a lack of political representation – whatever the panoply of injustice, discrimination and stigma visited on women it seems to have no end, and it so profoundly compromises their existence.
And what has happened through the developing world latterly in many parts and which is so unsettling, unnerving, so profoundly compromising are the patterns of physical and sexual violence. The World Health Organization just did a quite astonishing study. It interviewed twenty-five thousand women in fourteen countries about physical and sexual violence. It found that the lowest levels of violence were in Japan at 14%, and the highest levels were in rural Ethiopia at 71%. And when they looked at the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada they found interim levels of 30-35%. So they saw that this was a pattern so deeply entrenched, whether it’s marital rape or sexual violence from intimate partners or domestic abuse, these patterns are overwhelmingly entrenched.
And then when you get destabilization in countries they are further accelerated. A country like South Africa is a good example, where you have 5,700,000 people living with HIV and AIDS in a population of somewhat over 40 million. Incredibly enough, South Africa is a country where eight hundred to a thousand people die every day of AIDS-related illnesses. And in the most recent year for which statistics are available, which is 2006, there were 52,000 reported rapes. And everyone knows that reflects only 5-10% of the actual number because women are so reluctant, for a whole range of reasons, to actually, formally, to report the rape and begin to engage in a police and judicial process.
And it gets worse still when there is conflict. When there is conflict it goes right out of control. I don’t understand what these berserk lunatic predatory male sexual behavior – how it happens under conflict – but it happens and it never seems to end. And it’s not merely on the continent of Africa which I admit is a continent I love, but throw your minds back to the rule of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. The President of Indonesia just apologized to East Timor for the sexual violence that was unleashed by his forces when they tried to prevent the independence of East Timor. In the Balkans, I remind you a white, Western country, or countries, in the Balkans you have several military commanders who have come before the International Criminal Court charged with crimes against humanity rooted in sexual violence. The same is true for Colombia. There seems to be no part of the world which is exempt.
But in parts of Africa it really is astounding what is taking place. In the post-election violence in Kenya, suddenly more and more women were turning up at the hospitals, raped and subject to the most grotesque sexual violence. In Zimbabwe, an organization which I am involved with and to which I will refer at the end, AIDS-Free World, that Lisa mentioned in the introduction, I can’t go into details, which you will understand, but we have been over the last few weeks in an unnamed country in Africa, interviewing and taking affidavits under formal legal terms from the women who have been raped by Mugabe’s Youth Corps as Zimbabwe has ground down over the last several months. And Terror Camps were created --that’s what they’re called – to subject women associated in any way with the political opposition to insensate sexual violence.
And I was recently in Liberia, meeting with the President of Liberia and the Minister of Gender and the Unicef representative and they were telling me that the majority of rapes now in Liberia – after the civil war is over but the raping continues – the majority of rapes are committed against young girls between the ages of ten and fourteen. And everybody knows what’s happening in Darfur, that need not be explicated at length. For five years now the entire world has agreed that there is a genocide taking place and for whatever unconscionable reason we’ve never been able to bring it to an end. I mean, forgive me but this is not the Taliban in Darfur. These are Janjaweed militia commanders on horseback! And it is entirely possible to have subdued that and brought it to an end if the world cared a tinker’s dam for what was happening in that country.
And in the case of the Congo, you have a war on women. You know, if I may make a somewhat more intellectual observation, rape is no longer a weapon of war. Rape has become a strategy of war. You rape women in such numbers, so savagely that you humiliate entire communities through the women. The women hold the communities together. On the continent of Africa, nothing happens without the engagement of the women, particularly at the grassroots, particularly on the ground. And what happens is that the entire community is subdued, oppressed, overcome by these roving bands of marauding militias, who rape the women, move the community off the extractive resources, which is what they want, or turn the women into sex slaves and the men into the laborers who do extract the resources. And it’s hideous, the consequences, and it’s been going on since 1996. More than a quarter of a million women have been raped. And what is so unfathomable about it is everyone in a position of power knows, and it continues. I’ll never never comprehend.
In August of last year, Eve Ensler, the magnificent dramatist and writer of the Vagina Monologues went off to the Congo to see for herself what was happening and she spent a month or more and she came back and wrote an immensely powerful essay, the first words of which were, “I have just returned from Hell.” And I do not have the emotional equanimity to read to you the case histories that Eve set out. But after she came back suddenly the Undersecretary General of the United Nations, John Holmes, goes off to the Congo, comes back, writes an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times and calls it the worst place in the world for women. The Undersecretary General of the United Nations, who appears before the Security Counsel on a regular basis, and then suddenly there’s a front-page piece in the New York Times, and a front-page piece in the Washington Post, and a front-page piece in the Los Angeles Times, and Anderson Cooper of CNN does a twenty-minute segment on 60 Minutes, and everybody is caught up in the anxiety and urgency of what is being done to the women – it’s impossible to say in a way that can be absorbed what is happening to the women.
In the city of Bukavu in the Eastern region of the Congo there’s a little hospital called the Panzi Hospital where a lovely group of surgeons attempt desperately to repair the reproductive tracts of the women. This is rape that isn’t merely the gang-raping of eighty-year-olds and eight year olds, although that takes place. It’s rape with mutilation and amputation and guns and knives. Guns shot into the vaginas of women. I’m speaking to a sophisticated audience that cares about human issues – there is a medical term in the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu which I never in my adult life expected to encounter: it’s called “vaginal destruction.” And Eve Ensler has appeared before the Security Counsel, and we had an ostensible peace agreement, part of which peace agreement provided an amnesty for the militias that were doing the raping. And the war never ended. And the raping continues. And the war is now resuscitated. And so bad have things become that Condoleeza Rice, on June 19th, at the Security Council, introduced a resolution branding sexual violence as a matter of international peace and security. That had never happened before. And we have seventeen thousand United Nations peacekeepers in the Congo, the biggest peacekeeping mission in the world, and we cannot protect the women. And everyone knows its happening. And everybody knows that if we increase the numbers of peacekeepers, or the United Nations agencies did their job on the ground, or we confronted the government of the Congo in a way that no-one has had the courage to confront, we could perhaps abate the violence. But I have to tell you it’s so monstrous, and it’s so rooted in gender inequality, that it makes one feel not just tormented but dismal about the prospects for human behavior.


For more reading: Eve Ensler's piece that begins "I have just returned from hell".

To take action:
Donate to The Stephen Lewis Foundation
Donate to the Panzi Hospital
Amnesty International's Campaign to Stop Violence Against Women

Thursday, October 21, 2010

On Ideal Readers

I've been thinking lately about reading, and what makes me return to some books again and again, while others languish, unfinished or unstarted, on my bookshelves. There are four authors I repeatedly turn to in times of crisis or boredom or need: Margaret Atwood, Joan Didion, Ursula LeGuin, and Annie Dillard. I didn't know this about myself until I started giving away copies of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and The Tent in hopes that someone else would share what I felt when reading the words inside. Eventually I realized that even the people who enjoyed my recommendations -- and that was certainly not everyone I hassled to read what I was reading -- didn't effusively express the same connection to the books that I did. 

Over the years, Borges has started to creep into the ranks (strangely the only man in my pantheon on writers, despite the fact that most of the books I read are written by men), but the sensation of being known by an author is few and far between. I sometimes experience it with theorists -- C. Wright Mills, Richard Rorty, and Foucault come to mind, although only Rorty regularly makes it into my work -- but it remains a sensation tied to words, and not to ideas. I find myself picking up books by writers who express similar feelings about my beloved quintet; two weeks ago I bought Roberto Bolano's 2666 on the basis that he once said he could live under a kitchen table, reading Borges. 

It turns out there's a term for this sensation: that of being the ideal reader. In her introduction to The Best American Non-Required Reading 2003, Zadie Smith wrote about the experience of discovering yourself as an ideal reader:
The ideal reader cannot sleep when holding the writer he was meant to be with.
...
A cult book, of course, is one that induces the feeling of "being chosen as ideal" in every one of its readers. This is a rare, mysterious quality. The difference between, for example, a fine book like Philip Roth's The Human Stain and a cult book like J.D. Salinger's Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters is that no one is in any doubt that Roth's book was written for the general reader, whereas a Salinger reader must fight the irrational sensation that the book was written for her alone. It happens more often in music: Prince fans thought Prince their own private mirage; all of the boys who liked Morissey thought he sang for each of them...It is all of it delusional, probably, like simultaneous orgasm, but to think of oneself as the perfect receptacle for an artwork is one of the few wholly benign human vanities.
Ideal reading is aspirational, like dating. It happens that I am E.M. Forster's ideal reader, but I would much prefer to be Gustave Flaubert's or William Gaddis's or Franz Kafka's or Borges's. But early on Forster and I saw how we suited, how we fit, how we felt comfortable (too much so?) in each others company. I am Forster's ideal reader because, I think, nothing that he left on the page escapes me. Rightly or wrongly, I feel I get all his jokes and appreciate his nuances, that I am as hurt by his flaws as I am by my own, and as please when he is great as I would be if I did something great...You might know three or four writers like this in your life, and likely as not, you will meet them when you are very young. Understand: They are not the writers that you most respect, most envy, or even most enjoy. They are the ones you know.
This is not the ideal reader of the writer, as presented in Stephen King's excellent On Writing. The writer may indeed have an ideal reader in mind while she works -- this person is not the same as the reader who feels themselves to be ideal. Goethe, in a letter Johann Rochlitz, wrote that there are three kinds of readers: one who enjoys without judging, one who judges without enjoying, and a third who judges while enjoying and enjoys while judging. It is the final class of reader -- though the smallest class -- "who reproduces a work of art anew". This is the reader who holds, for the books that matter most to them, the promise of resurrection. They are the cumulative reader: each re-reading, each new piece of writing by the author, adds new layers of memory to the narrative.

From Nick Hornby's Songbook:
But sometimes, very occasionally, songs and books and films and pictures express who you are, perfectly. And they don't do this with words or images, necessarily; the connection is a lot less direct and more complicated than that...It's a process somewhat like falling in love. You don't necessarily choose the best person, or the wisest or the most beautiful; there's something else going on. There was a part of me that would rather have fallen for Updike, or Kerouac, or DeLillo -- for someone masculine, at least, maybe somebody a little more opaque, and certainly someone who uses more swear words -- and though I have admired those writers, at various stages in my life, admiration is a very different thing from the kind of transference I'm talking about. I'm talking about understanding -- or at least feeling like I understand -- every artistic decision, every impulse, the soul of both the work and its creator.  
Who are you the ideal reader for?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

LOLTheorists or: Why the Internet is the Best Thing Ever

I was going to write a lengthy post explaining how excited I was to come across the intersection of social theory and cat macros, but I think these images speak for themselves:

Foucault
Butler
Althusser
Mulvey
Kant & the Frankfurt School
If you want more of this boisterous and completely nerd-riffic entertainment, visit loltheorists for all of your academic macro needs. I know I'm going to try to work these into at least one academic presentation.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Book Review: Thinking Sociologically


I've spent the last few days with food poisoning and scrambling to catch up with work, but in that period of time I had the chance to read Zygmunt Bauman & Tim May's Thinking Sociologically.

Like the academic nerd that I am, I'm always on the lookout for good introductions to sociology that I can recommend to folks, either to undergrads who want a slightly more in-depth explanation of the discipline, or to friends and family members who I want to torment with demands that they have at least a basic understanding of what it is that I do (although the latter has yet to actually work on anyone). My go-to book in the past has been C. Wright Mills' classic The Sociological Imagination, and though it's still a favourite, the middle chapters are getting slightly dated. Most sociology students these days never have an encounter with the work of Talcott Parsons or Karl Lazarsfeld; as entertaining as Mills' critiques of these mid-century giants is, its borderline irrelevant to the incoming generation of sociology students.

On the other hand, most introductory sociology textbooks follow the tried and true "subfields" method of organizing the discipline: a chapter on stratification and inequality, a chapter on race and gender, a chapter on organizations, a chapter on social movements, and so on and so forth. I've always hated those textbooks for two reason. First, they orient the mental frameworks of students toward dividing sociology into neat little categories that don't intersect. In my view, this promotes an extraordinarily atheoretical attitude among sociology undergrads (as well as some sociology professionals!) and relegates classical sociological theory to the dustbin of irrelevance, mostly for being 'too broad'. Second, they're often brutally out of date when it comes to introducing readers to up-and-coming theoretical perspectives. I've only very rarely seen intro texts that provide a place for network theory, for questions about risk, or for ethnomethodological or dramaturgical approaches -- most texts don't seem to know what to do with a Garfinkel or a Goffman, and so leave them to the sidebars. This isn't the only way to approach introductory sociology, but it seems to be the dominant organizational strategy in North America -- particularly in the United States.

Bauman and May eschew this approach in favour of a looser organizational style. Thinking Sociologically is divided into two substantive parts -- "Action, Identity and Understanding in Everyday Life" and "Living our Lives: Challenges, Choices and Constraints". Under these headings are chapters like "The Bonds that Unite: Speaking of 'We'", "Time, Space, and (Dis)Order", and "The Business of Everyday Life: Consumption, Technology, and Lifestyles". Each chapter deals with two or three major theorists who touch on these topics (broadly construed), as well as pointing the reader towards other work -- both traditionally sociological work and pieces from other social science disciplines -- that expands on the themes of the chapters. I found myself extremely happy to turn to the back of the book after Chapter Five (on gifts, exchange, and intimacy) and find both Ulrich Beck's Risk Society and Arlie Hochschild's The Managed Heart as recommendations for further reading. In a traditional US sociology text, the Hochschild book would end up in the "Gender" chapter, and the Beck book probably wouldn't appear at all.

My favourite part of the book, though, is that it actually follows through on the promise of the title. Like The Sociological Imagination before it, Thinking Sociologically focuses on what it means to approach questions in a sociological way. Rather than bounding the discipline by providing a list of "sociological" topics, Bauman and May spend the introduction exploring the idea that what makes sociology different from the other social sciences is not its subject matter, but rather its way of thinking about the world. Toward the end of the introduction, Bauman and May write:

Sociology stands in opposition to the particularity of worldviews as if they can unproblematically speak in the name of a general state of affairs. Nor does it take-for-granted ways of understanding as if they constituted some natural way of explaining events that may simply be separated from historical change or the social location from which they emerged...It demonstrates that the common metaphor of the motivated individual as they key to understanding the human world -- including our own, thoroughly personal and private, thoughts and deeds -- is not an appropriate way to understand ourselves and others. To think sociologically is to make sense  of the human condition via an analysis of the manifold webs of human interdependency -- that toughest of realities to which we refer in order to explain our motives and the effects of their activation.

May and Bauman focus on the power of sociology to be an antifixating discpline, one which "renders flexible what may have been the oppressive fixity of social relations", thus widening the scope of human freedom. This is an emphasis which is sorely lacking in mainstream sociological texts, for reasons unclear to me. In representing sociology as a domain of widened possibility, rather than as a stringent set of areas to be studied, Bauman and May make thinking sociologically relevant to non-specialists as well as professional sociologists.

In The Sociological Imagination, C. Wright Mills lays out a project for sociology:

The sociological imagination enables us to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society. That is its task and its promise. It is the characteristic of Herbert Spencer--turgid, polysyllabic, comprehensive; of E.A. Ross--graceful, muckraking, upright; of Auguste Comte and Emile Durkheim; of the intricate and subtle Karl Mannhein. It is the quality of all that is intellectually excellent in Karl Marx; it is the clue to Thorstein Veblen's brilliant and ironic insight, to Joseph Schumpeters's many-sided constructions of reality; is is the basis of the psychological sweep of W.E.H. Leckey no less than of the profundity and clarity of Max Weber. And it is the signal of what is best in contemporary studies of man and society. 
...
In large part, contemporary man's self-conscious view of himself as at least an outside, if not a permanent stranger, rests upon an absorbed realization of social relativity and of the transformative power of history. The sociological imagination is the most fruitful form of this self-consciousness. By its use men whose mentalities have swept only a series of limited orbits often come to feel as if suddenly awakened in a house with which they had only supposed themselves to be familiar. Correctly or incorrectly, they often come to feel that they can now provide themselves with adequate summations, cohesive assessments, comprehensive orientations. Older decisions that once appeared sound now seem to them products of a mind unaccountably dense. Their capacity for astonishment is made lively again. They acquire a new way of thinking, they experience a transvaluation of values: in a word, by their reflection and by their sensibility, they realize the cultural meaning of the social sciences.
Thinking Sociologically is a work that fits squarely in the tradition of Mills' project, and in that capacity, I wholeheartedly endorse it.



Monday, October 11, 2010

A whole other type of geekery

Yesterday, I had the absolute pleasure of seeing the Mariinsky (formerly the Kirov) Orchestra, under the direction of Valery Gergiev. They performed Mahler's Symphony No. 5, as well as Rachmaninoff's Piano Concert No. 3, with Denis Matsuev at the keyboard. The Rachmaninoff, in particular, was brilliantly played, and received the lengthiest standing ovation I've ever been a part of.

When I was younger, I used to listen to classical music all the time. I grew up in a house where you were as likely to hear Beethoven as you were to hear the Beatles. My father was (and is) the very definition of a music junkie, and so many of my earliest memories involve dancing around the dining room table to T-Bone Burnett's "It's Not Too Late" (shamefully, not available on YouTube), John Hiatt's "Something Wild"(available only with video of James Spader doing stuff in a car), and REM's cover of "Wall of Death". But they also involve cleaning house to Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, reading to Vivaldi's Concertos for Lute & Mandolin, and falling asleep to Glenn Gould's idiosyncratic rendition of the Goldberg Variations.

If this seems like an egregious display of cultural capital, well, in some ways it is. I was lucky to grow up in a house were nerding out over bluegrass was as acceptable as nerding out over classical music, and where collecting all of the YA fantasy books Tamora Pierce has ever written was equally as valuable as having the complete Shakespeare. My parents encouraged, to use a concept I generally hate, cultural omnivorousness. The end result is that I like to geekily embrace political theory alongside my sci-fi, and sometimes I like to put on a skirt and some heels for an afternoon of classical music, when I'm not carting my newly tattooed self to an indie concert.

But being a fan of sci-fi and obscure bootlegs of Springsteen makes you a nerd; being a fan of Foucault and Mozart's operas makes you an aficionado. And that distinction (in the Bourdieusian sense), kinda sucks.