"More than machinery, we need humanity."
Many people spent quite a lot of 2017 reading. Granted, they were probably reading the news. During 2017 it often felt as though you needed to check the headlines every fifteen minutes because there was no telling what manner of horrible things had occurred since last you checked. There was a feeling that you needed to sit on a news site’s homepage frantically clicking the “refresh” button if you were to have any chance of staying up to date. Articles that were saved to “read later” often seemed as though they might as well have been written in a previous century by the time you actually got around to reading them. And to be frank, much of the news which kept (at least some of us) occupied in 2017 was bad news. On the most obvious note this largely refers to political news, but 2017 was also a year that had no shortage of terrible environmental news, and it was a year in which the technology monopolies dropped their façade of “don’t be evil” to revel in their full power-hungry shape. In truth, at the end of 2017 if someone said “I didn’t have time to read any books, I was too busy reading the news” – you could almost forgive them.
2017 was a year of many challenging, important, somber, and entertaining books. And some books that managed to be all those things at once. Although, in all honesty, it was also a year in which it was tempting to sneak away from books at chapter breaks in order to check the news to see if World War Three had started. What follows is a list of my favorite books from 2017 (and, as is my tradition, one book from the previous year). These were the books that made me think, the books that made me nervous, the books that I kept re-reading passages from weeks later, and the books that made me laugh in a year when laughter was in short supply. As with past years’ lists, this one is skewed heavily in the direction of my research interests – and thus, it is a list which contains no fiction. In 2017 I spent more time than I’d like to really admit reading the news, but the books on this list are ones that made the news intelligible in important ways.
I suspect that we’ll probably spend much of 2018 glued to the news as well – but you should make time for the books on this list. I know that I was glad I did in 2017.
Teargas: from the Battlefields of World War I to the Streets of Today by Anne Feigenbaum (Verso Books)
“Riot control is, and always has been, in the business of protecting the wealth of a tiny minority.” (166)
There are certain common tropes that can be found in many iconic images from protests: the protestors, the police in dystopian riot gear, and the billowy white tear gas clouds. Tear gas has become part of the basic tactical toolbox of the police, an expected part of the repressive state apparatus for protestors, and part of the basic visual vocabulary with which many news watchers are familiar. Yet recognizing that a cloud of white smoke is tear gas does not necessarily mean that a person knows much about the history of tear gas – or about the multinational chains of capital that are involved in making, selling, and promoting these noxious fumes today. In Teargas, Feigenbaum provides a compact and fascinating history of tear gas – tracking its transformation from an aspect of gas warfare in WWI, through its being touted as a useful (“less lethal”) tool for labor and colonial suppression, to its current use as a favorite tool for dispersing protestors. It is a history of, as Feigenbaum evocatively puts it, “policing with poison” (10). It is a history that is filled with death, chaos, and repression – a book filled with incidents in which badly trained soldiers and police officers deploy massive amounts of tear gas without thinking through (or even understanding) the risks. And while those clouds of tear gas in pictures may seem somewhat innocuous, Feigenbaum is unsparing in emphasizing that tear gas is meant to harm, it is meant to incapacitate, it is meant to sow panic – and the tear gas of today is much more powerful than the tear gas from even a decade ago. Beyond a history of technology and repression, Feigenbaum also discusses the companies that are making a fortune selling tear gas to repressive regimes the world over – evidently, there’s a lot of money to be made in poison. To understand the repressive uses of techno-science today, we need to understand the histories that have gotten us to this point.
Part history of technology, part history of protest, Teargas is simultaneously a gripping history and a galling exposé. It provides vital insight into those white clouds you see in images from protests (or at protests) – and it is a cold reminder of how those clouds came to seem normal, and of who profits from this normalcy.
Read it before you find yourself wandering through a sickening fog of teargas.
Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing by Marie Hicks (MIT Press)
“Technological change cannot be revolutionary if it fails to change the social and political structures of a society and instead heightens inequalities and divisions that are already present.” (222)
Many of the iconic figures associated with technology today fit a certain mold. Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Tim Cook – are a parade of white men. Indeed, one of the challenges that is often discussed about the world of big tech today is just how dominated it is by white (usually straight, usually cisgender) men. Some like to spin a reactionary story out of this that suggests that certain types of people (white men) are just better at computer programming. But, to be frank, those people need to learn some history. In Programmed Inequality, Hicks details the biases, cultural assumptions, and policy decisions that shaped the British computing industry and which involved the reclassification of programming from a job done by women, to a job for men. Beginning her narrative in World War Two, Hicks explores how integral women were to the computing and programming work involved in codebreaking, while explaining how women’s expertise was devalued from the start. Postwar, limited opportunities for advancement, low wages, and an assumption that women would leave work once they were married – all served to reinforce a system wherein women were vital for the success of Britain’s nascent computer field, but where this expertise was continually discarded. This is a history that puts the “no” in “innovation” as it demonstrates how Britain went from being at the forefront of computing (at the end of World War Two), to scrambling to keep up with (and eventually falling behind) the United States. And though there are a variety of factors that contributed to this, one of the key elements is the way in which Britain failed to take advantage of its highly skilled computing workforce: women. This is a history that demonstrates how computing went from a job field deemed rote and uninteresting, to a field that was deemed prestigious and exciting – and how the gendering of the field changed as the field grew in social prestige, economic heft, and political importance. If a given job field is associated with a particular gender, as this book reveals, it probably has more to do with that society’s values than with that particular job.
Programmed Inequality provides a window into a fascinating history, and it is a history that is brought to life by first-hand accounts of programmers from the period. An element of Hicks’s book that is particularly interesting is how it eschews a focus on “great individuals” to emphasize the important role that groups of unseen workers play in building (and maintaining) the world. Technological systems are built by people, those people build their biases into those systems, Programmed Inequality is an essential read on how certain ideas regarding gender have been coded into computing.
Read it if you’ve ever used a computer.
Left-Wing Melancholia by Enzo Traverso (Columbia University Press)
“Left-wing melancholy does not mean to abandon the idea of socialism or the hope for a better future; it means to rethink socialism in a time in which its memory is lost, hidden, and forgotten and needs to be redeemed. This melancholia does not mean lamenting a lost utopia, but rather rethinking a revolutionary project in a nonrevolutionary age.” (20)
We are not the first people to be saddened by the shape of the world. We are not the first people to feel as though we are helplessly watching a sinking ship. We are not the first people to feel trapped between a feeling of urgency and a sense of powerlessness. Taking, primarily, the twentieth-century as his object of analysis, Traverso charts the tragic sense of life that shaded the actions and work of a range of left-wing thinkers including Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, C.L.R. James, Bertolt Brecht, and others. While images of Adorno giving a thumbs down have become easy fodder for twenty-first century memes, Traverso treats negativity, despair, and a melancholic sense of life and politics seriously. Indeed, drawing upon Siegfried Kracauer, Traverso argues that a feeling of melancholy gives rise to the self-estrangement that is essential for critical understanding; this is not a romanticized nostalgia for the past but a sense that the hopes of the past are dead and need to be properly mourned. This is a book about the struggle on the part of a variety of thinkers not to see devastating defeat as simply a stumbling block in a glorious path, but as an actual defeat. At the heart of this vision is the utopian dream of socialism which was warped into authoritarianism under Stalin, was violently murdered by Hitler, and which eventually turned into a bland (definitively non-utopian) welfare state in the later part of the twentieth century in some European countries. The sense of loss is not for any particular “real socialism” or “other wrecked forms” but for “the struggle for emancipation as a historical experience” (52). What has transpired, in Traverso’s analysis, with the collapse of socialism is that utopia has gone from being a “not yet” to a “no place” – it has ceased being something we work towards because we have stopped believing it could actually exist. Droll myths of progress have taken utopia’s place, and in so doing have banished the responsibility to act (to engage in struggle) with an apathetic patience – Traverso highlights that for many a melancholic thinker “technical, industrial, and scientific progress” were seen as potentially dangerous forces of social regression. To mourn for the world we live in, is to retain the ability to dream of a better one.
This is not a particularly comforting book, and as a historian Traverso feels no need to conclude with a list of simple solutions. Yet there is much to learn from defeat, and from the experience of defeat. And one such lesson is that we should not give up on utopias, but neither should we simply embrace the utopias of previous generations. Left-Wing Melancholia may chart a course through despair, but it is through trudging along that path that we can once again discover hope.
Read it if, even in your moments of despair, you still think a better world is possible.
Bad Rabbi: and Other Strange but True Stories from the Yiddish Press by Eddy Portnoy (Stanford University Press)
“One of the by-products of the twisted Jewish road to modernity was an awareness, in Yiddish, that there really was something funny going on.” (18)
For many an imagination, the idea of pre-WWII European Jewry is a mishmash consisting of equal parts Fiddler on the Roof alongside black and white photos taken by Roman Vishniac: rabbis with long white beards, shtetls worried about pogroms, normal workers conducting their affairs in Yiddish. Or to put it another way, when people think about Yiddish speaking Jews in the early twentieth century they probably aren’t thinking about gangsters, brawls breaking out at Brises, scandalous divorces, beauty pageants, or 625 pound wrestlers. In Bad Rabbi, Portnoy attempts to “retrieve some of the flotsam and jetsam of Jewish history” (19) and he does this by turning to the Yiddish press (in Europe and the US). The central tragedy at the heart of Bad Rabbi is not so much the Holocaust, as such, but the decline of Yiddish culture that has made a massive amount of Jewish history inaccessible except to those (like Portnoy) with a command of the Yiddish language. The stories that Portnoy recounts vacillate between tragedy and comedy (often within the same story), and as Portnoy makes clear this was in keeping with the preferences of many readers of the Yiddish press who “seemed to love nothing more than a juicy story with an unhappy ending” (96). Beyond just being a recounting of scandalous tales, Portnoy captures the lyricism of the writing, and the confrontation between religion and politics that animated these communities. Yes, there really is a story of a 625 pound Jewish wrestler (Martin “the Blimp” Levy – who adorns the book’s cover); yes, there’s also an account of how Jewish gangsters were amongst the first groups to offer armed resistance against the Nazis and their collaborators; and, yes, there really is a chapter titled “Shomer Fucking Shabbos” (for those of you who aren’t Jewish, let me assure you – this is very funny).
Bad Rabbi is a hilarious book with a strong undercurrent of nostalgia for the vibrant uniquely Jewish culture that vanished and is now only accessible to those with a command of the Yiddish language. Luckily, Portnoy is willing to serve as a guide and a translator. After finishing this book, you’ll make it your 2018 resolution to learn Yiddish.
Read it if you want to laugh at one moment and groan “oy” at the next.
Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a Future Worth Wanting by Shannon Vallor (Oxford University Press)
“Indeed, no one on the planet today is fully insulated from the failures of human beings to jointly and wisely deliberate about the collective impact of their actions.” (53)
In all likelihood, you are reading these words on a screen. And, if you pause momentarily to consider it, there is a vast network of people, practices, and things that are responsible for getting those words onto that screen. From those mining minerals, to those assembling devices, to those who write programs, to those who lay and maintain cables, to…this could go on for quite some time. The point is that we increasingly live in a “technosocial” world in which our technologies are “embedded in co-evolving social practices, values, and institutions” (5). New technologies routinely alter our experience of the world around us (just ask anybody who has recently installed Alexa or Google Home) – but how often do we genuinely pause to consider what it means to live in such a world? And, perhaps more importantly, how to live wisely in such a world? With Technology and the Virtues, Vallor provides a fascinating account of how we can make sense of the world in which we live. For Vallor, life in a “technosocial” world requires the cultivation of “technomoral” virtues – the revitalization of virtue ethics for an age of high-technology – as it is only through practicing such virtues that we can hope to arrive at the “technomoral wisdom” needed to navigate the future that is rapidly unfolding before us. The virtues of “Honesty, Self-Control, Humility, Justice, Courage, Empathy, Care, Civility, Flexibility, Perspective, Magnanimity, and Technomoral Wisdom” (120) represent the values we need to rediscover and once more emphasize. Far from being a simple solution, the development of these virtues is an ongoing process, but such a process is essential given that the technological challenges that face us are not in stasis. After carefully and convincingly describing how each of these virtues appears in a “technosocial” context, Vallor goes on to explain how this framework can be used to make sense of a variety of technologically exacerbated challenges (social media, surveillance, robots) that we are already wrestling with in the present. Vallor emphasizes that there is a worrying gap between our “technosocial” power and our “technomoral” wisdom to use that power responsibly, but luckily “humans are not doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past” (253).
Throughout his oeuvre, Lewis Mumford repeatedly highlighted the difference between “the good life” and “the goods life” – his argument being that in high technology societies the latter came to stand in for the former. Technology and the Virtues is a powerful argument for the need to focus on “the good life” as we find ourselves in the midst of “the goods life.” It is a bold, hopeful vision of humans reasserting their power over technology – it is not a book to ignore.
Read it if you have used a piece of technology in the last year.
Futurability: The Age of Impotence and the Horizon of Possibility by Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi (Verso Books)
“When society enters a phase of crisis or approaches collapse, we can glimpse the horizon of possibility. This horizon itself is hard to distinguish, and the territory that borders this horizon is hard to describe or to map.” (28)
When times are dark, and people are feeling powerless, they often prefer comforting messages that assert that things really aren’t all that bad. Leave it to Berardi to point out that things are, in fact, much worse than most of us are willing to admit. This is a downward arc that Berardi has been busily exploring in several books over the last few years, and though he had been somewhat hopeful for the potential of movements like Occupy and their ilk, in 2017 the darkness has truly come. As Berardi puts it, in a fairly representative sentence: “democracy is over, that political hope is dead. Forever” (39). Much of the focus of Futurability is on the idea of “impotence,” the sense that people are unhappy with the world around them but simultaneously overcome with a feeling that they are powerless to do anything to change it. People are bound up in a web of financial capital and rampant consumerism that are driving the world towards a set of – swiftly approaching – catastrophes, and Berardi places little confidence in the idea that financial capitalism will be halted. Much of Berardi’s focus is on the role that technology has played in exacerbating this mess – making financial institutions more profitable, making workers more expendable, and undermining democracy – what is taking place is “the final replacement of politics with a system of techno-financial automatism” (42). Here technology increasingly comes to resemble a new liberating religion in which all hopes are invested: democracy won’t save the world, but Elon Musk will. This is a book about “the failure of the promise of modernity” (61), about how the hopes democracies invested in markets and machines have turned cannibalistic – and it is an honest reckoning with the intense feelings of despair that one experiences when one realizes that one has been had. As befits a book based on “vision without hope” (61), Berardi does not offer any clear solutions, nor does he endorse the dreams of a fully automated luxury communism put forth by some others – rather what is necessary is a recognition that the “promise of modernity” got us into this mess, we should stop expecting that promise to come true just because we want it to.
Futurability is a bleak block of pessimism. Most people won’t like it – and that’s probably because Berardi is willing to speak the truths that most people desperately avoid speaking. Yet pessimists are often quite prescient, ignoring their warnings does not make those warnings untrue. We should work in 2018 to prove Berardi wrong – but, I confess, I fear he’s probably right.
Read it if you need an antidote to your hopefulness.
The Economization of Life by Michelle Murphy (Duke University Press)
“Capitalist biopolitics does not just distribute life and death possibilities between bodies; it bundles antagonistic arrangements of life potential and exposure to death as the very terms of living.” (140)
Despite the rise of a proudly reactionary “alt-right,” in most circles one cannot present oneself as a eugenicist and expect it to be politely accepted. And though there have been no shortage of articles in recent years arguing “you shouldn’t have children for the sake of the planet” – few are willing to embrace the mantel of Malthus. But have these reactionary, pseudo-scientific, ideas genuinely vanished, or have they simply taken on a more innocuous form? In The Economization of Life, Murphy describes the ways in which ideas regarding people who are “more or less worthy of living” (6) have been revitalized in the forms of discourses on development and education – particularly in the way in which the idea of the “Third World girl” has “become the iconic vessel of human capital” (117). To be clear, this book will challenge you. Murphy explores the ways in which seemingly progressive programs around providing contraception, and education often have a dark side couched in bygone beliefs around which sorts of people should be reproducing. Furthermore, Murphy considers the ways in which campaigns that play upon “imaginaries of empowerment” are interwoven with webs of “speculative finance” (120) – wherein educational opportunities are often code for providing Nike sweatshops with a slightly better trained worker base. Murphy frames her book as a “provocation, not a proof” (7), and it is certainly provocative as it turns a critical gaze to seemingly non-controversial “goods” like education and access to contraception in order to ask “what’s really going on here?” Tying her narrative closely to present perils, Murphy describes how many of these development programs shift “the burden of fixing the world…onto rearranging the reproduction of poor and precarious people with highly constrained mobilities” with the result that “the rich…are thus left off the hook” (139) for the mess they’ve made. Refusing simple optimism or pessimism, Murphy argues for “a concept of collective being that can recognize both violence and the possibility of exceeding that violence” (145).
Murphy frames her book as a “provocation” – and that’s not an unfair way to describe this book. It is an attack that forces readers to confront the less than progressive values that are at work in many seemingly progressive developmental causes. This book doesn’t provide many answers, but it shows the right questions to ask.
Read it the next time you see an advertisement, or news story, about development.
No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters by Ursula K. Le Guin (Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt)
“Art is not a horse race. Literature is not the Olympics. The hell with the Great American Novel. We have all the great novels we need right now—and right now some man or woman is writing a new one we won’t know we needed till we read it.” (73)
With her latest collection of essays, the justly renowned author Ursula K. Le Guin shares her wisdom, wit, and wizardry. There are essays about the craft of writing (and the basic labor of it), thoughts on the state of the world (most essays are dated between 2010 and 2014), ruminations on aging, pieces on the use of language, and several things about cats. While Le Guin remains best known (with good reason) for her works of fiction, and poetry – this essay collection demonstrates her mastery of another form. Most of these essays are rather short, but most of them possess a wealth of provocations and ideas that linger with the reader. It is tempting to read through the book in one sitting, but this book is best enjoyed in small doses so as to provide an opportunity to properly digest. Le Guin’s reflections on Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey places those classic works both as the forerunners of most fantasy fiction (the war, the journey home), while simultaneously pointing to the aspects of those epics that make them worthy of continuing attention. The pages that Le Guin devotes to utopias are a provocation both for writers and for activists. An essay devoted to remembering a friend and former assistant is a somber tribute and a loving act of recognition. And, of course, the many pieces about cats (in general) and Le Guin’s cat Pard (in particular) are highly amusing. In truth, No Time to Spare is not a life changing book. And many of the essays inside of it suggest that Le Guin has some reservations about labels of “greatness” or “life changing.” Yet encountering, reading, and re-reading Le Guin’s novels leaves her readers changed. Her novels such as The Dispossessed and The Lathe of Heaven are life-changing (at least they were for me). No Time to Spare is an invitation to sit in and listen to Le Guin’s musings. We’re lucky she’s willing to share.
Le Guin’s essays are wide ranging in terms of topics, and those who do not care for discussions of cats may wish to skip over the many essays about Pard. Yet, this book was a delight. Some of the more political essays are somewhat pessimistic, yet Le Guin is a writer who (better than almost anyone) has imagined different futures and thus hope is never truly gone. That being said, if you haven’t read Le Guin before, you really should. The Dispossessed is wonderful, but The Left Hand of Darkness may be a better place to start.
Read it because you read.
Lists from Previous Years: