Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
There are many piles of books that exist in my life. Many. But the most notable of these are “the books I’ve read” versus “the books that I want to read.” I try to do my best to keep the latter from growing out of control (emphasis on “try”) and find that the best way to manage this is to steadily move books from the “want to read” to the “I’ve read” pile. The end of a year provides an opportunity to momentarily stand back and consider the things that have been successfully moved to the “I’ve read” pile over the course of the preceding twelve months. Granted, an embarrassed glance at the ever growing mountain of books I hope to eventually read serves as a reminder that there were many books I didn’t get around to reading – and numerous books that were never actually in the “want to read” pile somehow manage to find their way into the “I’ve read” stack. In short, there are books I’m confident I would have loved that I didn’t find time to read in 2016 and there were books that I knew I’d groan my way through (and which I did groan my way through) that I did find the time to read in 2016.
And, if I’m being honest, I spent a lot of time in 2016 reading the news. A lot of time.
What follows is a list of my favorite books that were in my “I’ve read” pile at the end of 2016. With the emphasis being on the books I read in 2016 that actually came out in 2016 (mostly). The term “favorite” is being deployed in a somewhat odd manner here, but these were the books that I found myself recommending the most, the books that I found myself mulling over long after I finished them, the books that I kept re-reading sections of, and the books that I really enjoyed reading. The books on this list (and the books in my “to read”) pile are a reflection of my areas of interest (or some would say “obsession”): the ethical/social/political/environmental ramifications of technological change, technological pessimism, impending doom, romanticism, and utopianism. In other words, this list is entirely filled with works of non-fiction (though I did read some excellent fiction in 2016). The list that follows is not constructed in any type of hierarchical manner, though I try to give each book a quick “why this book” line.
That’s enough of a health warning. Without further ado…
A book that provides a new inroad to an often overlooked thinker’s work
When it comes to the great critics of technology Günther Anders is criminally overlooked. Granted, it’s not as though tons of people are reading Mumford and Ellul either, but I digress…There are many possible reasons for why Anders is so under read today, but it may be that the main reason is actually fairly simple: Anders wrote primarily in German and much of his work has not been translated into English. At least not yet. With Prometheanism Müller has done a great two-fold service to Anders – he has provided a wonderful translation of part of one of the key works by Anders, while also providing several chapters that help place Anders’ thought into present discussions. Prometheanism includes a translation of “On Promethean Shame” which makes up roughly the first 100 pages of Anders two-volume masterwork die Antiquiertheit des Menschen (The Obsolescence of Mankind). This concept is a key component of Anders’ thought and represents the “shame” that humans feel in confronting a technological world that seems eminently more perfect than they are – it is the shame of being “born” instead of “made” – and the sense of insufficiency and obsolescence that people come to feel in the technological world. Anders, to be clear, is not the most uplifting of thinkers. Luckily Müller has done an excellent job of capturing Anders’ wit and pithiness which makes “On Promethean Shame” a pleasure to read despite its considerable pessimism. Yet, what makes Prometheanism particularly noteworthy is the second half of the book wherein Müller considers Anders “in the digital age” – as these four chapters demonstrate the continuing utility of Anders’ thought. This book is a wonderful introduction to a tragically overlooked figure!
The book that I couldn’t stop thinking about after I read it
When Donna Haraway puts out a new book, it’s always worth reading it. Her books are fascinating, challenging, infuriating, thought-provoking, and are bound to shake-up whatever discussion it is into which she is intervening. And with Making Kin, Haraway has written a book that is sure to make a significant impact in current discussions around the Anthropocene (it should be noted that Haraway has already contributed to these discussions with various talks and articles – but Making Kin is her first book-length intervention into these debates). In Making Kin, Haraway mulls over many of the issues that have animated her previous work: humans, animals, gender, technology, cyborgs, companion species, the end of the world – and here melds her scholarship with personal narrative and even some ruminations that seems like pure science fiction. It is very difficult to walk the path between optimism and pessimism, between hope and despair, and yet somehow Making Kin seems to pull it off, as Haraway puts it: “another world is not only urgently needed, it is possible, but not if we are ensorcelled in despair, cynicism, or optimism, and the belief/disbelief discourse of Progress” (51). In some ways Making Kin is a book about responsibly embracing the unknown future in its uncertainty, peril, and strangeness. It is a book that refuses to go in for false hope but it also rejects the wail of “all is lost” – rather it is a reminder that life continues even amongst the ruins (or “the compost”) and it is an invitation and challenge to think seriously about what that life might look like.
I’m not sure that I liked Making Kin, but I after I read it I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I’m still thinking about it.
A book that lays bare the politics embedded in technology…whether fans of that technology like it or not
It can be immensely comforting to think that technologies are neutral. After all, in that case it all boils down to people who make choices about whether to use a particular technology for good or for not-so-good purposes. And yet technologies don’t just happen, they are created by people living in societies and technologies become powerful carriers of values and politics. As Langdon Winner put it in The Whale and the Reactor: “those who have not recognized the ways in which technologies are shaped by social and economic forces have not gotten very far.” With The Politics of Bitcoin, David Golumbia has done a masterful job of exposing the “social and economic forces” underlying Bitcoin and what he has found is a swampy morass of right-wing economic theory mixed together with an unhealthy dollop of classic conspiratorial thinking. It is the type of book that is almost certain to provoke strong defensive reactions from Bitcoin’s boosters, but such reactions ultimately say more about the boosters than about Golumbia’s succinct and sharp account. Particularly noteworthy is the way in which Golumbia shows how Bitcoin’s boosters are advancing right-wing economic tropes even if they do not necessarily realize that they are doing so. This short book stands as an exemplary work when it comes to explaining, and exposing, the sorts of values and ideologies that become embedded and reified in a particular technology. Yet, what makes The Politics of Bitcoin especially worth reading is that it is more than just an account of Bitcoin, rather it points to the ideological context of which Bitcoins are just one part – cyberlibertarianism – and helps reveal the startlingly reactionary ideas that lurk behind much of the touting of “Internet freedom” and “cryptography to the rescue.” Golumbia dissolves the cryptic cover to show that when you buy into Bitcoin you are also buying into an ideology.
A critique of technology that isn’t afraid of actually advancing a fierce critique
Something that always annoys me is when books that promise to advance a stinging critique of technology begin with the author frantically proclaiming how much they love technology…they just think that maybe x, y, and z could be improved a little bit. Such declarations are made as a way of warding off accusations of Luddism – even as they act as accidental demonstrations of just how thoroughly technological enthusiasm has seeped into the lifeblood of current society. Hill does not begin Not So Fast with such a defensive move, instead he begins his book by stating: “I take a self-consciously skeptical view of mechanical miracles. I think it’s too easy to take the promise of technology at face value and to ignore its hidden and not-so-hidden costs. Those assumptions need to be challenged” (1). What follows is an amusing, erudite, and highly accessible assault on unthinking technological enthusiasm in which Hill demonstrates that the problems that new technologies seem to cause may not really be so new. This is not a book that ends with a neat and reassuring list of simple solutions, rather it approaches the problems of technological society seriously and argues that one of the first steps that needs to be taken is to take technological society seriously in turn. This is one of the most accessible introductions to some of the key figures and main debates that have animated the critique of technology over the years (which is, in truth, not really a coherent field), it’s an excellent way to ease yourself (or one of your friends) into the thought of figures like Mumford and Ellul. I recommend this book constantly – and it makes a great gift!
A book that makes you consider a complex issue from a new perspective
Medical care in the United States leaves quite a bit to be desired. Indeed, one of the topics that was brought up time and time again in the 2016 election was this very issue. But how did we get into this mess? And how is it that this particular “we” came to be constructed? In Remaking the American Patient, Nancy Tomes provides a wide-ranging and cross-disciplinary account of medicine in the US in the twentieth (and early twenty-first) century. This is not strictly a history of medicine, as Tomes delves into the many aspects that have contributed to the creation of “the American patient.” Tomes does a deft job of considering the political and economic factors that have been involved in making and remaking patients into consumers, but her book is particularly strong for the way in which she shows how media systems played an integral role in American medicine. This is not a narrative of committed doctors bravely soldiering forth to ensure the health of their patients, instead it is a story about advertisements convincing consumers that they need “to ask their doctor if [actually unnecessary medicine] is right for them.” Indeed, it is a book that uncovers the ways in which a medical system has been developed in which doctors, pharmacists, and patients have all found themselves bound more to the market than to actual health related goals. While this book presents a rather tragic narrative, it is one that only seems darker at the end of 2016, for the book concludes with some hopeful comments about improving the Affordable Care Act – though it now seems likely that the market is only going to be given a freer hand in “remaking” patients into consumers. This is a great book to read if you’re interested in how the medical system got to be the way it is. Granted, reading this book probably won’t make you feel much better.
An excellent biography about an important thinker (it actually came out in 2015, but I’m including it here)
Murray Bookchin was never really the type of figure to avoid conflicts. He waded into social struggle bravely, waged intellectual debates fiercely, and was not afraid to challenge orthodoxy. A radical thinker through and through, Bookchin was ahead of his time in thinking and writing about ecological issues – while he was also ahead of his time in trying to think of new paths by which radical politics could be advanced. From his time as a young Marxist in 1920s New York, to his years as a prominent anarchist intellectual, to his engagement with the growing environmental movement – Bookchin was not only an observer of radical political history in the twentieth century, he was an active participant. In this thoroughly engaging biography, Janet Biehl provides not only an overview of Bookchin’s life but also a stellar introduction into his thought. And though this biography is clearly laudatory (that is not meant as a criticism) it is also open in acknowledging that Bookchin had a rather pronounced cantankerous side. Biehl demonstrates the evolution of Bookchin’s thought and delves into the ideas and the experiences that led to these changes. Furthermore, Biehl provides a convincing argument that Bookchin should not be shunted aside as simply an “anarchist thinker” or an “ecological thinker” – rather he is portrayed as a vibrant thinker from whose work there remains much that can be gleaned. Early in the book Biehl quotes Bookchin giving a rousing call to arms: “We have to be realistic and do the impossible—because otherwise we will have the unthinkable” (x) – as 2016 comes to a close with many people feeling that the “unthinkable” has happened…it is well past time to rediscover Bookchin, and Biehl’s biography is the place to start.
Because definitions matter
2016 has been a year filled with arguments and consternation about what things mean. It has been a year in which words like fascism, misogyny, populism, socialism, hope, truth, liberal, and many others have jumped into the public discourse. Oftentimes these words have popped up, or been used, in ways that can make one tempted to ask “wait, what do you really mean by that term?” 2016 was a year in which words mattered. In which ideas mattered. And it’s quite probably that in 2017 all of those words and ideas will continue to matter. But what do they actually mean? AK Press’s Keywords for Radicals is an excellent volume to have on hand if you’re trying to answer that question. This book provides a thoroughly nuanced discussion of 57 concepts (each defined by a different person), with each entry serving not only as a definition of the term but as an analysis of the way that a given term’s meaning has evolved over time. In many ways one can read the book as a history of the present by means of an investigation of the way in which we talk about the world around us. Yet, as productive as it can be to read the book from cover to cover, Keywords for Radicals functions best as a sort of reference volume – a book to take down and flip through when you encounter a word being tossed about and you find yourself thinking “what does that word really mean?” Make no mistake, this is not a simple dictionary. But these ideas are not simple. And we do not live in simple times.
A beautiful and brilliant book about the end of the world that I absolutely loved and which I cannot begin to recommend highly enough. It was my favorite book in 2016 (but, yes, it actually came out in 2013)
Towards the end of her book, Rosalind Williams writes “the more humans have mastered the world, the more it has taken on the taint of our own mortality. The world no longer seems deathless” (335). Such lines were haunting and intriguing to read at the start of 2016, but as the year comes to a close they seem all the more dire and prescient. After all, at the end of 2016 it has become much more socially acceptable to openly opine that the world is in very bad shape and that things are probably just going to get worse. In The Triumph of Human Empire, Williams considers the work and thought of Jules Verne, William Morris, and Robert Louis Stevenson – taking into consideration the ways in which each of these writers thought about (and worried about) a world which was increasingly coming under human control. The titular “triumph” can be read as the victory of science and technology (and those wielding science and technology) over the rebellious forces of the natural world. Verne, Morris, and Stevenson are treated as knowing romantics – figures who could see the changes at work in the world around them and who reacted not with enthusiasm but with measured dread and a certain tragic conception of the unfolding of history. As Williams writes of Morris: “to live with constant loss and change is to live with a constant sense of foreboding” (195). Williams has written not only an excellent scholarly account of Verne, Morris, and Stevenson but a beautiful rumination on what it means to try and live an ethically informed life in a time of great changes that seem to herald the onset of the end times. Yet, the figures Williams focuses on are not simply bleak Cassandras howling in the darkness, rather “they knew the powers driving these injustices were larger than they were, and they faced unflinchingly the inevitability that they would lose. If anything, that knowledge made them more defiant. They were not going to change their sense of right and wrong, of beautiful and ugly, of just and unjust, simply because their battles would not be successful” (340).
The Triumph of Human Empire is a remarkable book. It is a book to read in the dark times and the bright times. It was the best book I read in 2016. I highly recommend you read it in 2017.