The "five books" meme

Ideas and other rhetorical gestures spread quickly through the densely interconnected network of the blogosphere. These "memes" (the term arises, I believe, from Richard Dawkins' effort to port/translate evolutionary logic into the sphere of "ideational" phenomena; I am not using it in his sense, which I think is largely silly because it overstates the logical coherence of publically-disseminated rhetorical commonplaces) travel over the myriad ties connecting each of us as nodes in the 'Net, made even easier by the ready availability of the "forward" function in e-mail programs and the daily routine of reading through one's blogroll (which I maintain as a list of bookmarks on my own machine; haven't gotten around to adding it to my blog yet).

So here's an example: dormgrandpop recently resurrected an oldie-but-goodie, the "five books that changed my life" meme being an academic, of course, he couldn't confine himself to five books, and in fact listed ten: a top five with brief explanations, and a further five without supplementary notes. He then briefly comments on emergent patterns derived from viewing the list as a whole. I'm going to take that one step further: first the top five with explanations, then the next five with briefer explanations, and finally five "novels" (loosely defined as a text that a) has a plot and characters and b) presents itself not as a work of scholarship or of philosophy, but as a story). [Arguably the last category, the novels, are the books that really changed my life, not in the least because they prepared the ground for me to be influenced by the other works.]

Two more prefatory remarks. This list includes the works that appear at the moment to have been the most central and influential to my life and work. Given the retrospective character of self-narration, it is entirely possible that a future me will decide that these books weren't so central to my life and work after all. Also, I am choosing to regard "changed my life" as different from "central to my work," although some books occupy both categories simultaneously.

Enough preliminaries. Here's the list, in chronological order:

1. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (trans. Walter Kaufmann -- accept no substitutes)

I had read excerpts from this masterful demolition of Enlightenment rationalism before entering college, but I purchased my first actual copy of the text with a gift certificate that I won in an essay contest during the first week of my first year in undergrad. It took me approximately until I finished the first chapter after the prologue -- "On the Three Metamorphoses" -- to realize that I had found a philosopher who could give voice to inchoate things that I had been wrestling with for years. The celebration of the creative, form-giving aspect of LIFE (which in my own work I now generally refer to as "agency"); the merciless critique of our smug triumphalist sense of our own election; the posing of the choice facing us as one between the Last Man and the Overman: positively awe-inspiring.

2. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (trans. Stephen Kalberg, although like everyone else I first read the vastly inferior Talcott Parsons translation first)

As a freshman I asked several of my professors to recommend some summer reading for me; Weber's masterpiece was on the list. Perhaps because of my prior conversion (so to speak) by Nietzsche I never really saw in Weber the "bourgeois Marx" that others cling to. Rather, Weber to me always exemplified how to do social science: give up the notion of absolute truth, concentrate on historical processes that alter the framework of what we take to be "real," break large concepts like "capitalism" down into more manageable empirical pieces, and perhaps most importantly pay close attention to how social arrangements grow out of and give rise to yet other social arrangements. As soon as I finished the book I wanted to write something like it of my own, and this desire only grew stronger as I read better translations and the German original. Time will tell whether anything I produce can hold a candle to this fabulous piece of scholarship (even if many of its "facts" are rather problematic…).

3. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (trans. Macquarrie and Robinson, although I hear that the Stambaugh is very good too)

As a senior in undergrad I picked up Heidegger's dense and weighty tome looking for an approach to ontology that would address some of the problems posed by quantum mechanics for our commonsensical substantialism. Although we experience objects as solid and stable, quantum theory tells us a different story, and suggests the need for some other account of how and why we experience the world in the way that we do. Heidegger's meticulous analysis of Dasein -- that aspect of us that makes us human, and enables and underlies the courses of action that we undertake -- provides a radically different way of approaching these questions, one that places our historical character at the center of things. Arguably other, later works by Heidegger present the implications of this position more succinctly (notably his "Letter on Humanism" and the lecture-series What is Called Thinking?) than Being and Time does, but these later statements remain, to my mind, elaborations of and glosses on BT.

4. Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West (trans. Charles Francis Atkinson; read the full two-volume edition, not the condensed/brief edition)

It took me several years to locate copies of both volumes of Spengler's audacious attempt to predetermine the course of world history. I had been searching for copies ever since I heard Werner Dannhauser and Francis Fukuyama sparring about Nietzsche and Spengler at a conference when I was a sophomore, and I finally located copies when I moved to New York to begin working on my Ph.D. I have fond memories of sitting in the park behind Grant's Tomb, which was across the street from where I was living, devouring Spengler as something of an antidote to the stuff I was reading in my considerably more neopositivist and mainstream graduate courses. Spengler bequeathed to me three things: an account of "science" as a cultural phenomenon rather than a procedure for disclosing trans-cultural truths; an appreciation for the importance of form in conducting social analysis; and a sense of the weight of history that remains implicated in the smallest details of everyday action. I later re-discovered these things better articulated and more systematically discussed in other authors, most notably in Weber's methodological writings, but reading Spengler set me on the path to appreciate them.

5. John Shotter, Cultural Politics of Everyday Life

My stumbling upon Shotter is a testimony to serendipity and synchronicity: one day I was renewing books at the Lehman Library at Columbia University, and my eye lit upon a book in the "recently returned" stack that was adorned with a large picture of Jupiter's Great Red Spot. I picked the book up and placed it in my stack for check-out. On the train home I flipped through the book, noted that it looked interesting but not so important that I needed to read it now, and when I got home it went into a stack of "read eventually" books. About a year and half later I was puzzling through an article by Harrison White about temporal switching dynamics and found a reference to that very book, together with a blockquote excerpt about order emerging from chaos that seemed tremendously insightful. When I got home I pulled Shotter's book out of the stack and began reading. There was a footnote in the Introduction that -- much as Nietzsche had done for me some years before -- put into clear text a series of issues I'd been wrestling with involving both my fascination and my frustration with postmodern anti-scholarship. Suffice to say I was hooked, and a quotation from Shotter -- alongside one from Nietzsche -- adorned the frontispiece of my dissertation:

"Are there any such structures, really? And, given the historical character of the enablements and constraints clearly operating in our communicative activities, is that how they are best characterized?…In other words, do we require an ontology of already existing things, or an ontology of ethically significant, developmental activities?"
Words to live by, I think, and I have tried to do so ever since.

The next five:

6. Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge (trans. Alan Sheridan)

A brilliant presentation of an approach to the social construction of knowledge that avoids the reductionism associated with either the "history or ideas" or with naive materialism.

7. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (trans. Anscombe; bilingual is best if you read German)

I had read this in undergrad, but didn't really come to appreciate how profound it was until after I read Shotter. The demolition of the notion of a "private language" is, I think, one of the two or three most significant things to happen in twentieth-century philosophy.

8. Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (trans. Hong and Hong -- again, accept no substitutes)

Faith as grasping the thing that cannot be spoken. The inescapable burden of decision. Reason as a barrier to our apprehension of the world, even as the rational remains equal to the ethical…what's not to love?

9. Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America (all English editions of this one are the same)

"Did Cortes conquer the Aztecs by means of signs?" Perhaps the most impressive exploration of "first contact" written outside of the genre of science fiction.

10. Andrew Abbott, Chaos of Disciplines

One of those books that brought together a lot of threads for me: the indexical character of social labels; the importance of local context ("all social life is local"); the inseparability of destinations from the paths used to reach them; and the value of spare processual and relational analytic.

Looking over the list I note that: a) unlike dormgrandpop, only one of these books was written by anyone I have ever met, and I took pains to meet Shotter after reading his book; b) almost none of these books were originally written in English, and half of them were written in German; c) without exception they all concern themselves with the status and production of knowledge; d) not a one of them is an "IR" or a polisci book in the conventional sense, even though that's what my degree and my job title say that I do for a living. Curious.

And then the five novels, which are arguably even more central to myself as a person than the books on the above list:

5. Alan Moore, V for Vendetta

Probably not Moore's best book; Watchmen takes that prize. But when I think about myself a teacher and am honest about my models, V's extended dealings with Evey (mutatis mutandis) spring to mind.

4. Richard Bach, Illusions

I seem to have been pre-programmed to be a social constructionist, apparently…

3. Madeline L'Engle, A Wrinkle in Time

"Science" as a creative endeavor through which people fought off lurking evil, and thus more akin to art than to, say, bureaucratic administration or mindless number-crunching, always made infinitely more sense to me.

2. Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land

"…the universe is just a little thing we whipped up among us the other night for our entertainment and then agreed to forget the gag."

1. cheating a little bit, but the entirety of the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant (two trilogies, six books); if I had to pick just one, it would be The Wounded Land, the first book of the Second Chronicles. Donaldson's exploration of faith, reason, the importance of contradiction and alloys, the inadequacy of "reality" and "fantasy" as descriptions of anything, and the paradoxes of power is probably my favorite fictional series ever, even counting The Lord of the Rings and Iain M. Banks' Culture novels and Asimov's Foundation books (all of which would certainly be near the top of my list of such series). I try to re-read it once a year. [I'm curious to see where Donaldson is going with his recent "last chronicles" series; personally I thought that White Gold Wielder wrapped things up as well as they needed to be, and I'm not convinced by The Runes of the Earth that there's much left to tell. But I'll give him enough rope to hang himself -- three books' worth, in fact, since the "last chronicles" are supposed to constitute four books in total.]

Enough of that. I'm off to Hawai'i for the annual ISA conference.

[Posted with ecto]


Blogging conversation outline

As promised, a brief overview of what I said/will say (I'm posting this before the actual session) about the pedagogical use of blogging.

1. what can you do with blogs?
  • encourage wrestling with the material outside of the classroom
  • introduce additional material "as it happens"
  • promote interaction between students
  • improve the quality of class discussion
  • encourage students to enter into wider conversations
  • emphasize personal expression and self-crafting
  • engage in meta-commentary
2. why do this with blogs?
  • publicly accessible
  • part of the broader 'Net/blogosphere
  • emphasis on the conversational element
  • "column"-discussions, as opposed to the steps or branching trees afforded by a traditional bulletin board
  • much easier to incorporate hypertext elements (links, graphics) into posts
  • customizability of appearance
  • availability of end-user client programs for composition
3. how do you do it?
  • have a rubric with clear expectations
  • "blogging groups" are a useful tactic for larger classes
  • blogger.com is free, easy, and did I mention free?
  • comments are crucial; I like haloscan
  • make sure to maintain your own blog
  • visit student blogs regularly and engage them in conversation via comments
  • pass back and forth: draw blog discussions into the classroom, suggest that classroom conversations be continued on the blogs
[Posted with ecto]


Noontime conversation pieces

The Center for Teaching Excellence is holding a Noontime Conversation on blogging; I'm participating (go figure), although I have to run out early to get down to Georgetown for a talk by someone on one of my personal hobby-horses: the misreadings of Max Weber's epistemology that are endemic in the social sciences. But it should be a good conversation all the same.

A few links that I plan to use in my talk:

Two representative s/s/f course blogs, http://littlemakers.blogspot.com/ and http://ssflcja.blogspot.com/.

The C of I blog, http://conductofinquiry.blogspot.com.

The Krakow blog.

Peter Howard's blog.

Clancy's blog where blogging-as-pedagogy is often, and intelligently, discussed.

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Facts and fictions

Charles Krauthammer, a partisan hack on whom one can almost always count for a party line masquerading as an analytical conclusion,* recently wrote this op-ed piece on Social Security reform in which he suggests that the date that Bush gave in his State of the Union address for the bankruptcy of the system -- 2042 -- is a "fiction," and that the actual date of the system's crisis is 2018, when the "pay-as-you-go system starts paying out more (in Social Security benefits) than goes in (in payroll taxes)" due to demographic shifts and adjustments in the level of benefits provided. Now, this claim may be true and it may not be true; whether you think that it is probably says more about your feeling about how government programs should be run (whether they should try to break even, or whether they should seek to utilize and redistribute overall social resources so as to approximate a certain kind of society over the long term) than it does about any of the actual figures involved.**

But what I found most interesting in the piece is the metaphorical structure that Krauthammer deploys in an effort to get his point across. He calls the piece "2042: A Fiscal Odyssey," an obvious allusion to the classic sci-fi film 2001: A Space Odyssey -- except that he downplays those aspects of the film that try to provide as accurate a forecast of the human future in space as Kubrick and Clarke could manage at the time (which is why, for example, there are no cool sound effects, since there would be no sound in a vacuum, and why the journey to Jupiter takes so long, since there is no faster-than-light travel). "The new millennium was always a science fiction idea, and now that we are there, years beginning with a '2' still seem fictional," he comments; "2011, the first boomer retirement year, has a Stanley Kubrick feel." Note the metaphorical opposition of "facts" and "fiction" -- as though having a "Stanley Kubrick feel" and "seem[ing] fictional" meant that the things being discussed were in some important sense false. And then he delivers this pithy observation: "2042 lies somewhere in the Matrix." One gets the feeling that Krauthammer hasn't seen any of the Matrix films, since these are not only dystopian visions of the future but also cleverly analytical treatments of the human capacity to become imprisoned by our own constructions. If 2042 lies in the Matrix, that ought to be a wake-up call to take some rather drastic steps designed to head off that possible future pronto.

So what are these allusions doing in the op-ed? I don't mean "what was Krauthammer's motive in putting these things in?" since a) his motive is probably something like "make my point as effectively as I can, and try to bring some of my readers along with me" -- he is an op-ed columnist, after all, and that's what they do for a living -- and b) it's irrelevant to the really interesting question*** of the function of the allusions concretely deployed. And what they do, I'd submit, is to establish (rhetorically) an opposition between "fact" and "fiction" that obscures the value-laden character of Krauthammer's position. If 2042 can be (rhetorically) linked to "science fiction," then his alternate date of 2018 looks, almost by definition, to be in some sense more factual. His rhetorical strategy depends on the socially plausible opposition of "science fiction" and "(science) fact," even as it sustains and extends that opposition by deploying it in a very public setting.

Whether one thinks that this is a good strategy or not depends on whether one accepts the dichotomy in the first place. I'm not so sure that it is a good dichotomy for a number of reasons; chief among these is the observation that virtually everything appears "fictional" before it happens. A chief element of the Social Security program -- the notion that present-day workers have an obligation to support those not working or those no longer working -- appears in science fiction novels long before the program's creation, most notably in Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward 2000-1887; the converse notion, a broader critique of the notion that government should be enacting general societal responsibilities, also has important science-fictional precedents, such as Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged -- one of Alan Greenspan's favorite books -- and Robert Heinlein's The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. In all of these cases, the political-moral value-commitments that inform subsequent policy are treated in the splendid analytical isolation of a fictional world in which the author can control all of the important variables, and readers of the novels might pick up those value-commitments in the course of their reading (or might have them confirmed and reinforced through seeing those value-commitments played out narratively).

What I mean to suggest here is simply that science fiction can be a source of "factual" policies, making the simple opposition that Krauthammer deploys somewhat problematic. Just because something looks like "science fiction" does not necessarily make it any less factual, especially since today's fictions can sometimes become tomorrow's facts. Dismissing a political stance by associating it with science fiction ignores this interpenetration, reproducing a misleading dichotomy for the sake of a few political points.

On the other hand, some of the freedom accorded to "science fiction" as a genre depends on this dismissive attitude; if things get too hairy, one can always toss up one's hands and say "hey, hold on, this is just science fiction." Hence Star Trek's exploration of politically and socially sensitive issues (Vietnam and inter-racial kisses in the original series, and the morality of genocide in several TNG episodes, most notably in "I, Borg"), Iain M. Banks' reflections on liberal empire, and so on. One can get away with quite a bit by prefacing it with the label "science fiction," and engage in rather profound social commentary and extrapolation of trends without having to adhere to whatever (ultimately arbitrary, perhaps?) standards are presently being upheld as constituting the essence of sound social science or political commentary.

Hence I remain ambivalent. The dismissal of "science fiction" as such: a good or a bad thing? Discuss.

* Krauthammer is hardly alone in this disposition; similar things could be said of Maureen Dowd, David Brooks, E. J. Dionne, George Will, and almost any other nationally syndicated editorial columnist -- to say nothing of bulldogs like Ann Coulter and James Carville. My choice of Krauthammer for this particular entry has to do with his choice of metaphors, and should not be (necessarily) taken as a commentary on his politics. Op-ed columnists of whatever political persuasion aren't writing as scholars, and holding them to scholarly standards is a bit unfair…but what the hell.

** Krauthammer's fiscal logic depends on the presumption that we should treat the Social Security program as an independent aspect of the government's budget, and look at the program's health by directly comparing FICA tax income with benefits distributed under the heading of "Social Security." As Max Weber would remind us, which facts we see and uphold depend on the prior resolution of a political-moral question about what the government should be doing -- a question that cannot be settled by an appeal to "the facts" because, of course, which facts matter depends on which value-commitment one utilizes to apprehend them.

*** Don't know about you but I for one am not really interested in peering into Charles Krauthammer's mind or soul.

[Posted with ecto]


So today I'd like to talk about …

The way I run classroom discussions I rarely if ever have a good sense of where they're going to end up. At the most I start off the day with a set of concerns that we might want to touch on, or a question or two concerning the reading that suggests a direction for us to move in. Sometimes I don't even have that. My feeling is that discussions are their own emergent entity, subject to their own dynamics and subtly urged on by the indefinable but present promptings of joint action. So I set the stage, provide the text, and then simply let things go where they will.

Of course, I'm a participant in the process, and I do have the ability to wrench the conversation around in ways that the students in the class are usually reluctant to utilize. Plus I tend to "conduct" by running a speaker's queue, so that no one dominates and people who aren't as aggressive can gain the floor right on point. (Of course, that kind of officiating breaks down, as it should, as the semester goes on and the conversation itself just starts to run away with everyone.) But I generally follow rather than lead, and if the conversation in the room seems to want to go towards X rather than Y, my inclination is to let it.

Now, this does mean that when I start off class saying that I want to make sure that we hit two or three things, we may very well not get to them. Take today's s/s/f class, in which I wanted us to talk about the gender issues in Dune that made their way onto several blog entries. We didn't really get there. I also wanted to talk about power, and whether religions were just ways of obtaining and exercising power; the Weber reading lent itself to that, and last week's discussion of the Bene Gesserit also posed the question. We did spend a while there, getting at the differences between an internal ("believer's") account of a religion and an external ("observer's") account, and also playing around with the perceived incompatibilities between science and (some) religion. And then Akira got dragged in near the end: what happens when science actually manages to produce something that can really only be experienced and explained in religious terms?

I'm not too concerned about the gender issue, since we have a session explicitly devoted to that in a few weeks, and it has come up from time to time before (and will hopefully continue to do so). These novels are rich enough that we can't possibly exhaust any of them in a given session. Plus, the blogs seem to fill in a few of the holes, such as Lennea's observations on why Dune's portrayal of women disturbed her and Jessie's analysis of Leeloo's ambiguous savior role in The Fifth Element. So things that we don't cover in the classroom are still getting considered more or less in public, which is good.

I suppose I could be more didactic, steer the discussion more explicitly. That way I'd make sure that we covered everything I wanted to cover…

…and we'd lose the whole "joint action" aspect of a class discussion that makes it so enjoyable in the first place. I already know what I think; class discussion is an opportunity to put that to the test, so to speak, by airing it in the company of others.

And besides, if I ever really feel like we didn't cover something, I can always blog it, right?

[Posted with ecto]



The thick of the semester is upon us, making it more difficult to keep up with everything. This is true of both students and faculty, of course, but at the moment the faculty side is the most pressing one -- since, of course, it's where I'm standing. Class discussions are going well and the online discussions associated with both the s/s/f course and the C of I course are proceeding nicely, so there's not much to report there -- it takes a few weeks before classes start to gel so that the conversations can get past the initial "feeling out everyone's position" stage. Last week's class sessions both provided stellar examples of that, as the C of I course started really grappling with the "is what we do in IR a science?" question and the s/s/f course, discussing Dune, got into the issue of whether we can even discuss messianic figures and movements without in some sense participating in the hagiography that accompanies such exercises (illustrated in Herbert's novel by Princess Irulan's commentaries, and also oddly exemplified by the "plain text" narrative itself if we take the Appendix III "Report on Bene Gesserit Motives and Purposes" seriously, which I think that we have to). So we're getting into it now, so to speak.

Of course, the thick of the semester also means: letters of recommendation to craft; committee business to transact; book manuscripts to finalize; conference to attend (and conference papers to, um, toss together as quickly as possible); and grading to keep up with. Something's got to give, and unfortunately what gives for me is often this blog. ::gets mildly embarrassed look on face, since I am supposed to be setting an example here both for students and for colleagues about how academic blogging works::

I'll try to post more regularly in this spot when I can -- especially since there's a good deal of sci-fi stuff happening now, what with Battlestar Galactica actually remaining good and Episode III (which I still think isn't sci-fi, but it's close enough for these purposes) about to make its debut. And even a straight "report on what happened in class" might be interesting enough to post, so I'll try to do that, at minimum. These are supposed to be "course diaries," after all.

In other news, been re-reading The Hobbit as a preparation for re-reading The Trilogy later on this semester sometime. I'd forgotten how masterfully Tolkien makes The Hobbit a children's fairy-tale. His narrator really seems to incorporate aspects of Bilbo's charming naivety, such as when the narrator makes comments about how Gandalf would have died had he attacked the goblins directly when the party was imprisoned in the trees before the eagles came and rescued them. Given that the book is supposed to have been written by Bilbo as "There and Back Again," this makes sense, but it's harder to pull off than to envision. Once again I am awestruck by Tolkien's master craftsmanship.

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