Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Year In Media: Part 3, Books

Late this year I started a book club on called "The Society Book Club", with an emphasis on social, political and philosophical issues.  We meet every couple of months, and it's been fun.  The group dynamics are however interesting, as some members tend to Bogart the discussion.  As the de facto leader I do my best to promote everyone's voice, but I probably contribute to the problem to a degree.  Part of the issue is that a number of the members have rather "broad" political leanings.  By this I mean that, while everyone is generally liberal, these members seem enthralled with a type of cheap political analysis that relies on broad generalizations and grand theories of causality, where nuance and skepticism is sacrificed for a simplicity of moral confidence. 

Hence, the term "they" is often referred to as the source of most social ills, "they" being an amorphous liberal bogeyman equal parts corporate boardroom and wealthy 1%.  In this world view, these puppet-masters control what we think, what we buy, how we feel, what our priorities are, and how we behave.  Every social ill is thus easily explained by a larger pattern of social decay set in motion and determined by a small cadre of profit-hungry, greedy capitalists. 

One can see the allure of such a view.  It is indeed partially true.  But it is absurdly simplistic.  Not only does its convenience blind itself to nuance and general causal diversity, but it misses larger structural explanations that place blame not with rational individuals, but with larger, deeper systemic dynamics in which no one is to blame individually, but rather agreements and assumption we have all implicitly accepted as governing model for how we want to structure society.  The problem with seeing this larger structural narrative as a primary causal agent is that it is enormously unsatisfying.  Not only is it difficult to understand, but there is no one to really point our collective fingers at in blame.  And worse still, there is no clear vision for how to replace this structure.  For most progressives, there indeed are very specific policy proposals, in general looking like a more social-democratic, European model (however, even there social ills still remain).  But standing in the way is not necessarily any shadowy corporate malfeasance, but rather an enormous plurality of Americans who just profoundly disagree with the progressive vision, both in cause and solution.  It can be argued that these Americans are mere "sheep" to corporate advertisement, but the reality is that modern conservatism is a cohesive ideological narrative with deep historical roots that stands on its own, needing little help from corporate benefactors to promote its anti-progressive message.

 So, articulating all of that has become my hobby horse at our meetings.  Books we've read:

Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules You Behavior, by Leonard Mlodinov
The Price of Inequality, by Joseph Stiglitz
The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg
How Much Is Enough: Money and The Good Life, by Robert and Edward Skidelsky

Books I personally read this year:

The Ego Tunnel, by Thomas Metzinger
Childhood's End, by Arthur C. Clarke
The Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, by Philip K. Dick
At Home in the Universe, by Stuart Kaufman (didn't finish)
Just Six Numbers, by Martin Rees
A Universe From Nothing, by Lawrence Krauss
Ben Franklin: An American Life, by Walter Isaacson
Neuromancer, by William Gibson

As you can see, I went on a bit of a sci-fi kick.  I was basically let go from my job at the continuation school, which I wrote about at the time, and needed some escapism to combat the profound despair I was feeling in the first few months of the year.  Philip K. Dick was gloriously savage in his deconstruction of the interaction between the psyche and the physical world, exposing again and again what we take for granted.  There is a spiritualism here, where the harsh mystery of science and the natural world bumps up against the feeble glue of human consciousness.

I then took on the universe, reading Kaufman, Rees and Krauss, in a succession of what I can humbly describe as fascinatingly vague explications of the physical nature of the universe and reality itself.  Fun, and profound, but nothing I can say I understood all that well.  What I did understand, though, was a beautiful vision of a cosmos the vastness and complexity of which we cannot but be humbled by.

Ben Franklin was a lot of fun.  Mostly however, not so much from an appreciation of the man himself, but from the world and events within which he was traveling.  I was struck by a picture of Philadelphia as a small town of a few thousand people.  Franklin the man was indeed a great mind, but in the end he was a somewhat tragic figure, forming few close bonds and basically leaving his family behind while he spent over a decade in Europe - unlike, say, the resolutely cranky John Adams, who was deeply connected to his family. 

William Gibson was sort of brilliant to read, thirty years later, the digital age well upon us.  His prose was ambitious, albeit messy and too often silly.  But he was establishing things that clearly came to fruition, not in the least the implosion of time and space itself as digital reality compresses all of our understandings of and interactions with our surrounding environment.

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