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BOOKS THAT MATTER II / Vol. 89, No. 2 (Summer 2022)

Hobbes’s Leviathan has long been recognized as a classic in the history of Western political thought. This essay argues that this work deserves this accolade because some of the central antinomies of modern political experience—between scientific knowledge and the search for meaning, between reason and the passions in human psychology, and between the individual’s will and the power of the collective—are brilliantly recounted in this work. Above all, the piece emphasizes the originality of Hobbes’s construction of sovereignty through the theory of authorship and representation. The essay concludes by suggesting a feminist critique of Hobbes’s view of human nature.

This essay explores a common theme in Margaret Jacob’s The Radical Enlightenment and M. H. Abrams’s Natural Supernaturalism, arguing they traverse the trajectory of a doctrine that may be called “realism about values” from the mid-seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century and the political possibilities it offers for a form of radicalism that stands apart from the political commitments of the orthodox Enlightenment. Such radicalism stresses the ideal of overcoming alienation and reconfigures the great ideals of the Enlightenment—liberty and equality—to nest within this more fundamental ideal, addressing the chronic tension and trade-off between liberty and equality as standardly conceived.

The two Alice books (Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass) have, from my earliest childhood, supplied the metaphors, images, and phrases with which I have explained my life to myself. The themes of hallucinogenic mushrooms and dreams dreamt have inspired several of the books I have written. Alice’s ambivalence about eating creatures with whom she has conversations has haunted my own guilty carnivoraciousness. The forest where things have no names eases my own encroaching lethologica and prosopagnosia. And all the gentle jokes about death comfort me as I approach the end of this particular dream.

The essay is an intersectional reading of W. E. B. Du Bois’s classic.

I compare a new book by young climate activist Daniel Sherrell, published in August 2021, the same month the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its most recent report, to the famous 1930 essay by John Maynard Keynes “Economic Possibilities of Our Grandchildren.” Keynes’s exceedingly optimistic view of the future is contrasted with Sherrell’s smart, sober, and respectful memoir about the end of the world. Economists, writers, and activists do what they can to bring the future forward to the present.

The term “identity politics” was coined by the Combahee River Collective in 1978. Today, the concept is under attack from all sides—even among critical theorists. Despite this, the United States just witnessed the largest political protests in its history, organized around Black identity. It is important to return to the Combahee River Collective Statement, in conversation with Stuart Hall’s The Fateful Triangle: Race, Ethnicity, Nation, to explore a concept of identity politics that recognizes the power of identities while remaining open to how notions of identity change in response to shifting relations of power and politics.

Frederick Bartlett’s Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology offered a radical alternative to the century-old notion that memory was like a storehouse. Bartlett insisted that memories were not stored away, but were reconstructed on the run, with new rendering emerging with each act of reconstruction. As a result, psychologists should study not memory, but remembering, and focus on the social contexts in which remembering takes place. Recent work on deep learning and reconsolidation has provided substantial support for Bartlett’s approach.

This essay offers measured appreciation of Walzer’s book, The Company of Critics: Social Criticism and Political Commitment in the Twentieth Century. Walzer argued only those who express solidarity with fellow citizens can persuade them to support a movement for a more equal society. Walzer developed his view through portraits of 11 writers who did much to shape the intellectual left in the West during the twentieth century. His “connected criticism” principle is a necessary but insufficient guide to the virtues and vices of modern left-wing thought. He conveyed it as a desirable tendency, not monistic doctrine, but neglected, occasionally, to delve into the political uses to which activists put the writers he analyzed.

This paper discusses Weber’s Vocation Lectures, especially the issues of morality, politics, and science, in light of the spreading of disinformation in the COVID pandemic. As Weber is arguably our strongest advocate for the capacity of science and politics to supersede categories of moral meaning, it is useful to consider how categories of moral meaning—especially the category of evil—might be needed, in light of the fragility of science and politics. The essay suggests the limits and helpfulness of Weber’s lectures for our present predicament.

What can great fiction do that social sciences cannot? Social science’s Individuals are abstract: not real, and thus fictional—shaped to explain outcomes. Explanation concludes a process of inquiry. Fiction, by contrast, is a process of exploration: opening up questions and generating puzzles, pursuing nuance and complexity. Ulysses abundantly exemplifies this. It depicts Dublin life ethnographically but in a distinctive way, as its participants experience it; and the book’s hero Leopold Bloom is examined to show how this fictional figure eludes abstraction. Finally, Alfred Schutz’s account of the “life-world,” viewing individuals as “puppets” and through “typifications” is claimed to support the foregoing argument.

This essay is an appreciation of Ivo Andric's novel, The Bridge on the Drina, and Georg Simmel’s essay, “Bridge and Door,” which provide an infrastructure for meaning and hope in times of social despair.

Phillis Wheatley’s 1773 collection, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, is surely a book that matters. It matters as the first book published by an American slave of African origin; it matters as an emblem of the complex political, moral, and philosophical debates at hand in the American colonies on the eve of revolution; it matters as an aesthetic achievement; and it matters, perhaps most of all, as evidence of the persistence of antiblack racism and the discourse of white supremacy that have indelibly impacted the reception of this book from its eighteenth-century release to the present day.

This essay is a memoir exploring how Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man changed the author’s life. How can such a text so shake us from our indifference, or our undiscriminating curiosity, as if calling us to follow a different path in life? And how does such a revelation of the written word—even if it is regarded as the gospel truth for a significant period of one’s life—subsequently fall apart, to be set aside emphatically, as if shaking off a mistaken set of convictions?

Karl Jaspers considers four varieties of guilt—criminal, moral, metaphysical, and political—and whether Germans are collectively or individually guilty for the crimes of the Nazis. What influence did Jasper’s thinking about guilt have on his former pupil Hannah Arendt? What was the impact of such thinking on the political development of Germany in the period after World War II and up to contemporary times?

A writer in the New Yorker called John Williams the “author of the greatest American novel you’ve never heard of.” They were referring to John Williams’s Stoner, but equally if not more important in our era is Butcher’s Crossing. Usually classified as a Western, it is a scathing indictment of the toxic masculinity and Emersonian egotism that drove men west to “find themselves” through conquest, in this case the brutal destruction of the American buffalo. Williams’s chronicle of a bloody autumn of slaughter should stand alongside Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring as one of the great works of American environmental writing.

In 1949, Robert Merton asked: “Why did sociology document the problems and performance of the professional thief … but not the problems and performance of the professional social scientist?” Unsuccessfully, he argued for a systematic study of the “social science of social science.” This essay, seven decades later, returns to Merton’s question, now reframed as “using science as evidence in public policy.” Policy use is less robust than it can and should be. This would not be the case if Merton’s systematic study had been mounted. The good news is that it is not too late.

Austrian writer Martin Pollack investigates the Nazi past of his father, who died before he could ever know his son. The position the author takes is implicitly this one: we are responsible not for atoning for the sins of others; we are responsible for facing the truth in the present. The distinction, perhaps subtle, is not at all trivial.

This essay is an effort to convey why Landscape for a Good Woman has held me fast for some 30 years of rereading and teaching with it, its attention to sentiment so vividly joining with my own work. Carolyn Steedman shatters the conventions of working-class histories, where a “stolid emotional sameness” erases the affective and material privations of those lives. Her understanding of social belonging and its exclusions is unique. She takes children’s perceptions as “the very lineaments of adult political analysis.” In her radical style, being demeaned, bitter, and defiant joins with longing for a sweeping skirt to make up the rough landscape of the “borderlands.”

Cities are the most complex creations of human imagination and endeavor. Their physical forms and social relations map the landscape of history and a geography of future possibility. In an age of climate crisis, whither cities, so too humanity. Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino’s multivalent parable of urban life, is a traveling companion for those seeking to understand how cities came to be and what they might become.

Victor Turner’s The Ritual Process, published in 1970, spoke to its time. The social movements of the late 1960s and 1970s identified with Turner’s idea that they were neither marginal nor deviant, but liminal elements in a procession through periods of structure and anti-structure. More than this, Turner argued that times of transition are privileged and generative for individuals and societies. Most recently, the analysis of liminality in The Ritual Process is relevant to considering America and its pandemic experience. Thinking about thresholds suggests how COVID’s tragedy is an opportunity to see America anew.

Psychologist David Shapiro’s distinctive style of observation reveals complexity, nuance, and irony in the operation of character. A person’s character feels intimately familiar, yet can produce estrangement from their own experience. Character steadies mental functioning by keeping anxiety within tolerable limits, but does so at a cost. An abiding outlook on events, or working image of oneself or others, avoids discomfort by shrouding the inner promptings and interests that enable choice and self-direction. To the careful observer this estrangement may be evident when the tone of a person’s apparent enthusiasm or showy conviction seems intended to silence their own doubts.


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