Finding new books is harder than it should be. Independent bookstores are closing shop, and big box stores who only carry whatever bribes their way past the exorbitant stock keeping fees. Databases and libraries become impossible to navigate unless you already know what you're looking for. Even with online resale, you can only search within your own vocabulary. Now rare are the times when one can simply look upon a bookshelf and see some hitherto unknown title.
I know I must not be the only one with this problem. So, I offer a listing of my own shelves, such that anyone may use my listing as reference for their own.
I will only list books that I liked, were interesting, or at least not terrible enough to be disowned. Self-authored books are not listed. Multiple copies in different languages are listed only once. Scientific work that risks being quickly outdated, (example: C++ Standard Libraries,) are unlisted. Favourites are italicized. Those which I didn't finish or could not fully read are not bolded. Items are listed alphabetically, but not in the order in which I first read them, so inter-related lines of thought between multiple books may be listed in a confusing order.
I take recommendations for others, within reason.
Last updated: February 02020
– Garrett G. Fagan
(Sciences, New) The one book The Lure of the Arena most reminds me of is Kraut and Resnik’s Building Online Communities, if you could somehow believe that. Each are an academic volume which claim to be about one thing, by their titles if anything else, yet throughout have only the surface pretensions of interest in it all. You’ll be surprised by how much you learn in this book, and then you’ll be surprised by how much you didn’t learn about the social life of the coliseum. The depths and desperations of the Roman Arena only take up a small, and comparatively uninteresting, part of this book.
Fagan’s subtitle here is “social psychology and the crowd at the Roman Games,” which highlights his core hypothesis. It is less a cogent point or new assertion and more of a question: what was the extent of interest in the Roman coliseum by Roman society, and what were the social dynamics which made the crowds and audiences at these games give their social acceptance, to what could charitably be described as violent bloodsport? Of course, social psychology is not a very easy thing to do for a historical subject, so radically gone these past two millennia. Thus, Fagan compensates for a lack of empirical inquiry by interrogating the phenomenon of crowd dynamics at the Roman games from every possible angle. ... and every possible angle is then tried. This is what gives the book its varied, smorgasbord-like flavour, with each new chapter being about something most unlike what came before it, and the Roman Arena itself merely a fleeting image which is chased through – or perhaps away from – these various topics.
Sadly, its not a perfectly safe read, and not just because the “catalogues of cruelty” may document a traumatic path through the injustices of a bloodthirsty past. Ironically, it is precisely when Fagan tries to interrogate the central subject matter of the social psychology of crowd dynamics, when he is at his weakest. As a book published in 02011, many of the psychological bases which he underwrote his theories on crowd dynamics, namely the “Robbers Cave” experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment, would later be proven as academic frauds by journalists who attempted to re-investigate the original datasets of the experiments in 02017 and 02018. (Only two in a whole slew of fraud accusations which would beset the field of social psychology during its “replication crisis”.) While Fagan did not have the advance knowledge that these experiments were fraudulent, he did at least note in his own retelling that both experiments always produced wildly different results on each separate replication attempt. But hey! While it lasted, at least they made for some pretty good stories, right? ... right?
At the end of it all, Fagan is not able to answer the question why the Roman Games were accepted by their historical peers. All he could do was pose the question, and pose it quite vigorously. So dedicated is he to asserting it as a question that Fagan even went out of his way to rule out what might seem like simple and easy answers. I expected within this book some section which may have revisited the scapegoating theories of René Girard which had so enchanted me ages ago, yet even that hypothesis was ruled out as a matter of course. While many of the munera featured public executions of socially-ostracized noxii, even down to how many of the historical accounts of the munera were from the perspectives of persecuted-soon-martyred Christians, a strange detail is present in the historical record that most modern readers tend to skip over: public executions were usually the least popular aspect of the Roman Games, even by the standards of the historical period. Most accounts of the Roman Games came from people who did not have the privilege of attending them regularly, thus compelling them to observe for the entire day and not, as the others did, come and go throughout to the specific events that interested them. For the executions of noxii, the arena was mostly empty and without many spectators in the cavea; the grim business of state punishment rendered too dull and boring when compared against the exotic animal shows and the much-advertised bouts between professionally-trained gladiators. Even the simple reasons for why a crowd would elect to attend a gladiator battle, or even a sporting match in general, is also a question where some answers are surreptitiously ruled out. Of relevance to Girard, and many theorists of media and fiction writing, is the Aristolean idea of “catharsis”: the feeling of expurgation and pathos to come as a result of properly-done theatre-based ritual. Catharsis has become the explaining factor for everything in both the ancient and modern world about why people indulge in listening to stories as entertainment, but Fagan disagrees. To him, the catharsis hypothesis has no empirical basis, as people can be often viewed leaving things like movies and sporting events feeling more wound-up and excited than when they entered. It’s a simple observation that I’ve so curiously ignored until it is pointed out. ... but even if it is so easily disproved, Fagan alone offers no functional alternative to replace it.
– Cailin O'Connor, James Owen Weatherall
(Sciences, New) Misinformation has become such a bugbear on the modern internet. Following the inability-cum-refusal of large companies to enact the same level of content moderation the small forums of yesteryear did as a matter of course, spam began to pretend to political power. There have been numerous calls for large platforms to start taking misinformation seriously; calls which the large platforms have industriously ignored. It was – and remains – my hypothesis that capitalist constraint is what stayed their hand; that they couldn’t effectively deal with the problem without also taking a hit on their mostly-invented growth metrics. However, suppose I gave them the benefit of the doubt, even if undeserved. What would the field have to say in order to account for the new scales to which their neglect allowed the problem to grow?
Not much different, it turns out. I sought out this motivated read to see if there could be any new information in a field whose primary texts are still upheld from the days of the Cold War, but anyone who has already spent any amount of time studying propaganda systems will very likely find this book wanting. The book itself might be recent, but the same can’t be said of what is written on its pages. The most of what it has to say are things I had already found in other sources at other times, with an almost particular focus on Oreskes and Conway’s The Merchants of Doubt. Neither O’Connor or Weatherall even have specialties in propaganda or malinformation, but instead are professors of mathematics and statistics. Their claim is not to offer any new or prescient insights into the matter, but to instead come equipped with computer-simulated statistical models which simulate the effect of propaganda infecting and altering a content-agonstic network of social relations. Their mathematical simulations and other such prognostications, almost with the simplicity of an assignment constructed by a university freshman, conformed to the general consensus of what propaganda studies would’ve suggested it would. Applying basic math to basic concepts, to achieve basic results, for basic purposes.
... but in many ways, that’s my issue with it. In trying to use a few simple tricks to reach the same conclusions as everyone else, it feels as if O’Connor and Weatherall have surprisingly little to say on the subject which they supposedly dedicated an entire book. If I already thought the working consensus of propaganda studies was just fine – a working consensus that is very effective at identifying propaganda, yet wildly terrible at doing anything to stop it from spreading – then why would I have sought out this book to read? That is a question which the authors can’t seem to answer. Their operative-network models come so tantalizingly close to offering a new look at how misinformation spreads throughout social groups, that it becomes all the more frustrating when their innovations turn out not-so-innovative after all. It’s operating on such a beginner’s understanding of the concepts and histories in communication studies that I could only recommend it as a beginner’s text to other people, and even then, not a terribly good one.
– Matt Madden
A graphic novel done in vien of le Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, with specific reference to Raymond Queneau. Like Queneau before him, Madden takes the concept of recurring style and makes it work fantastically in graphic form. However, some of his stylistic changes are a bit too minor, despite their cleverness.
– Paulo Coelho
For a while, I thought this was one of those sorts of books that would be the only good one that particular author would ever write, but time would reveal it as something else. I remembered reading it in high school, as recommended to me by a friend who was not particularly bookish himself, and I remembered liking it both during the read and after. The memory of the enjoyment remained, but the exact recollection of what happened in the book faded away. My only contention came from trying to read some other books by the same author, noticing the obvious decline in both quality of writing and overall manners as a supposed storyteller with confusing self-important autobiography.
Some scholars far more courageous than I eventually did their research on the book, revealing what exactly was operating behind it all. Under the gloss of the super-fun adverture story with a naïve 'n lovable protagonist is a rather dreadful ideology, a propagandized screed to hedonism and selfishness, whatever the consequence, all while wearing the dress of learned wisdom and sagacious profundity.
The true quality of the book should have been signalled to me by its method of discovery, in way of recommendation from someone who didn't normally read much themselves, especially during a time of one's life when "reading novels" for more normal people is a kind of pointless busywork that the education system so rudely forces into one's own personal time. Even the way it repeats the same conclusions over and over again is a small aid to the type of inexperienced reader who would normally pass over the subtexts and symbolisms in regular books. (Even if doing so would make it borishly condesending or nigh-unreadable to someone else who is already widely-read and used to properly-edited prose.) This book holds sway in the same uncatalogued genre which houses the works of Stephanie Meyer and Ayn Rand; sexed-up, action-movie, nouveau bibles for the overprivileged newly-literate; even down to how the screechy polemicals can be used as some ursurous proclaimation from authority, holy writ, to live abusively and selfishly without the stain of guilt or sin.
This is not to say anyone who likes this book is some heretic or moral reprobate; this one sneaks up on you. The more openly Randian side is tucked away in the postscript, a "sample section" offered for book clubs, where the cannabis-enibriated author so embarrassingly John Galts all over the bathroom floor -- a pattern which he continued into his other books. I considered it a mercy that the propagandistic element of this book was kept in an area fenced-off from the main story, such that the main story could at least theoretically stand on its own merits, but that only made its true nature much harder to recognize. There's clearly a business in telling people what they want to hear, one which this author was all too happy to indulge for the daytime television talk show circuit of the mid 01990's, but business in capitalism only happens when people have money and not mere need. It gave birth to a fad that eventually exhausted itself, and nobody much cares for this book anymore. In that way, it could've been much worse. This book gave my old high school friends, as every seemingly-trustworthy adult authority in their life shackled them into cycles of unsustainable student debt that they were beginning to have some reservations about, at least a private means to indulge maybe fashioning a destiny for theirselves. (Even if they still lacked the means to act upon it.) Perhaps I was more fortunate that I had other, more actionable means of doing the same.
While there isn't much getting around the fact that it is a bad book, for some reason I can't deprive it of the honour which it was mistakenly given. Should I ever reach up to cast this book away, as is its rightful fate, I find my hand always stayed. Thus, it remains, no matter how much less I see of it. Perhaps it's in memory of the friend who so excitedly gave it to me in the first place?
– George Orwell
One reads Orwell if one feels the need to depress themselves as quickly as possible, for whatever reason. Animal Farm is normally considered the left-wing counterpart to the right-wing 1984, but as more time passes the more I'm beginning to think such labels might not be quite accurate. Animal Farm is very definitely meant to be a critque of the developments that were undergone in the soon-to-be Soviet bloc countries at the time of its writing, with all the analogues to the fallout between Trotsky, Stalin, and the consequences thereof. While I must admit I found Road to Wigan Pier (also by Orwell) to be far more depressing from a left-wing angle, the storied parable of Animal Farm gives it a certain immortality that Wigan Pier lacks, even if that dangerously removes it from its necessary historical context.
It's therein that lies the rub, strangely enough. This book holds a particular sway in the pantheon of anti-communist education for people who grew up during the Cold War. It took me a while to remember, but my first encounter with the book was in my high school civics halfclass, with all the particularities of the Canadian Catholic system and its under-the-surface right-wing pretentions. It would've been one of those days where the teacher didn't quite have a full lesson prepared, so they just got a wheel-in VCR and played the 01954 animated movie. Many other students would've only seen that heartstrung Disneyesque to just assume “socialism bad” and move on to the next thing that school will so thoughtlessly throw at them. I don't think the book was written as anything other than a personal diagnostic, the author trying to work out exact reason why the bolshevik revolutions went off the rails, despite holding such emancipatory promise. (Considering everything else Orwell wrote, such as Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia, there's no evidence to the contrary.) History has been unkind to Animal Farm, as it's been retroactively twisted into a propaganda piece against its own will.
– Eugène Ionesco
Donald M. Allen translation. The Bald Soprano hooked me on the entire movement of the Theatre of the Absurd, even if at the moment when I first discovered them I didn't quite know what they were conceptually about. What spurned me to read more of them in detail was a student play that was an original work done in vien of Absurdism. Sadly, I doubt that particular play will ever find publication. (Then again, since I first saw it back when I was more easily impressionable, I doubt the play would hold up to modern standard anyway.)
– Roald Dhal
I normally despise autobiography, considering it a fruitless and narcissistic form of writing. At one instance I was compelled to by my original writing teacher, and Dhal offered a relatively painless way out with his quick-witted, well-tempered, and mercifully short prose.
– Bill Watterson
The Essential Calvin and Hobbes, The Authoritative Calvin and Hobbes, The Indispensable Calvin and Hobbes, Yukon Ho!, Revenge of the Babysat, and There's Treasure Everywhere. Hand-me-down books from my father, coupled with a few I tracked down to patch up the holes, but by no means a complete set. Calvin and Hobbes is probably what Ozzy and Millie would've been to my father's generation, though the comedy of Calvin and Hobbes is much more timeless, and ages at a much slower rate that Ozzy and Millie could hope for.
– Gwen “Giles” Benaway
I managed to see her perform a miniseries found within this book called "Advice for Abused Children" and I simply knew I had to read the rest. The poems in this book are exemplary by virtue of pure content alone; it's very rare to find arted prose that can bear the full weight of its subject matter while still evoking a poetic style: dark, mournful, yet somehow, sensuous. The book stands quite well on the chapters "Prayers and Invocations" and "Gods of My Fathers", each of which has multi-part poems within them that flesh out the ideas to a very fine degree.
Looking through my other books, I think this is may be my first book written by a Canadian First Nations person. I always wanted to look more into aboriginal writing, as it was something that interested me quite a bit as a serious subject, but I never knew where to look. I don't know if this book will be an effective gateway drug to that end, but I'll be keeping an eye out for more. However, there is another reason I'm interested in Mrs. Benaway's writing in particular. Her bio states that she is working on “a young adult novel about a teenaged gay Aboriginal werewolf with Asperger's Syndrome,” and it sounds like the perfect trainwreck. Can't wait.
(Note: this book was written before the author transitioned, and is still published using her older name. I've updated this listing accordingly.)
– Jonathan Ball
The only book of poetry that has ever fully enraptured me. I knew I had to read the full thing when I first saw samples of it in Volume 37.2 of Grain, and it did not disappoint. Should I ever sustain multiple injuries of head trauma and decide that getting a doctorate in English Literature is suddenly a good idea, this book would be the subject of my thesis.
– Aurthur Miller
Another old high school book. Reading it again, I found that the school curriculum that surrounded it did more to defang the clearly anti-capitalist message at the core of the plot and had less to do with promoting true understanding of the work. I think The Crucible is the better of his two plays I've read, but I only keep Salesman as proof of the irony found within my old schooling system's purported goals of "promoting critical thinking," so long as the thinking isn't critical of anything actually important. Perhaps the amount of unbridled annoyance that caused is why I ended up liking the works of Noam Chomsky so much...
– Eric Woolfe
Book of three theatre plays made for a few actors and a lot of puppets. The first play is more akin to sketch comedy, which was pretty hit or miss. The second play had a somewhat awkward premise, but had very nice little musical numbers. The third play was all-around great. Unlike reading other plays though, I do not doubt the difference in reading these versus seeing them performed -- which by now would be quite difficult. Some reviews of the original showtimes say the puppetry lacked verisimilitude, but added a surreality to the drama, wherein one actor playing multiple characters makes you wonder if it isn't just all happening in their own heads.
– Samuel Beckett
The work one inevitably runs into when one is enamoured with the Theatre of the Absurd. When I first read the tragicomedy in two acts, I thought it was one of the funniest things I had ever read. Then I saw it performed, and wondered why on earth I ever thought that in the first place.
– Samuel Beckett
Kinda forgettable, really, even after the Absurdist elements. All I remember were two Oscar the Grouch precursors wandering about backstage, talking about various things that didn't seem to have anything to do with anything at all. Maybe I'm misremembering...
– Beatriz Hausner
I'm unsure how I was possessed to find this book, as I must have only randomly happened upon its title. Not finding it at the library and ordering in, my immediate regret was upon it first arriving and thinking "Oh God, this is not what I think it is, is it?" It kind of was, but then, it kind of was not. A surprising, but uneasy relief; it really could've done without the poorly inked illustrations.
My first reading of this book was a grievous misinterpretation; I thought the trick to understanding how this book worked was reading every left page in a female voice and reading every right page in a male voice. I was mistaken, however, because I was confused by the format at first and ended up missing the right-handed Amy Winehouse reference in the first few passages. The sad thing is, even after realizing my mistake, I thought my version was much more interesting than the "more correct" one I got on a second reading. As such, I cannot recommend this book in any sane capacity to other readers ('cause it's trash), but I liked the version of this book I believe I had read, even if that is not the version Miss Hausner actually wrote.
Y'know what? I've come around. This book's great!
Once I got past the secondhand embarrassment of actually having held it in my hands, the book itself became one of those morbid curiosities whose presence on my shelves changed from the dark corners where I hoped none would discover it, into the open view as if to flaunt its abject absurdity. This 02012 book dares the question, “what if furry porn, but good?”
This is not the first time such a thing was ventured, or even uncommon. Jeet Heer once wrote a whole essay’s worth to wonder the question why Canadian fiction is flush with people having sex with animals, vegetables. The governor general’s award throughout its history has given benefit to at least two novels about fucking bears – and by that I don’t mean burly gay men. As recently as 02016, a very intelligent and very prolific University of Toronto professor sparked controversy for a magazine story about screwing an owl. (Why? Why.) Both Heer and the literary editor Emily Keeler likened it to the nation grappling with generations of inbred garrison mentality, stemming from our unrequited colonialist dreams, thoroughly defeated by both the relentless wilds in front of us and our own dysfunctional kin behind us. Or to put it more bluntly: “so many of our stories were about getting fucked by nature, eventually we considered fucking it back.” ... I think they might be giving CanLit too much credit. My mistake, when first reading this book, was to assume it was all symbolism, to be a metaphor for something, anything. Please, please be a metaphor for something.
It’s not! We’re here to get entered by the raccoon. Entered by the raccoon. Enter. Raccoon.
Maybe it’s because this book stems from that older, stranger tradition that makes it so much more fascinating than the usual lemons which litter the Internet. It is as horny as it is melancholy, but for all the descriptively detailed sex and furious masturbation, I can’t even call it erotica. It’s too cerebral to try. It’s the type of book that would interrupt a climax with a long and winding missive on the nature of objective reality and then use solipsistic slipping to turn its new boyfriend into the world’s clingiest poltergeist. The two trash animals being trash animals is barely even the thrust of the action, but instead a sort of recurring somnambulist dream, linked together by unanswerable and tormentive questions about the phenomenology of feeling. It’s very sincere, but very pretentious, and I find that hilarious.
Do I actually like this book? As in what is written on the pages? I don’t know. Perhaps I am more amused by the fact that it even exists at all.
– Christian Bök
Poetry done in vien of le Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle. While it is impossible not to enjoy reading it, I believe it is ultimately an empty work, in a method I believe is almost emblematic of most contemporary poetic writing today. If I had to pick a poster child for style over substance, Bök would be a prime recommendation from my shelf -- but at least he's redeemable in the pure revelry of language he inspires, unlike others. (Only booklovers should physically buy it. Everyone else can listen to an audio performance of it at UbuWeb: http://www.ubu.com/sound/bok.html)
– Jonathan Ball
Poetry in the sense of it being experimental prose, which makes it a bit more accessible to literary types with a distaste for pretension. His first first book, and probably one of his stronger works, even though it is nowhere close to Clockfire. It can be read in both a linear and nonlinear fashion. However, and I'm sure Mr. Ball would be saddened to hear this, one gets far more out of it in a linear reading than one does in a nonlinear reading -- at least when one has the physical book in their hands.
– Raymond Queneau
Barbra Wright translation. One of the seminal works in le Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle. Like most things Oulipo, it risks falling prey to the usual temptations of style over substance, yet the sheer breadth Queneau is able to cover in his mad quest is highly impressive even in translation, and his tempered approach gives reading the work a kind of modesty that does not merely show off what it is doing, but a true exploration of potential literature. One of the few positive things I left my dire craft writing school with.
– André Alexis
APOLLO: Have you seen this newspaper article? "Pets on Prozac: Dogs with separation anxiety feel 'optimistic' when taking antidepressants." Clearly, human intelligence is a plague and the Mortal Justice Warriors have taken things too far.
HERMES: Here's a novel idea; how about we make the dogs actually need the prozac?
ZEUS: Did you just give a bunch of random dogs crippling depression
HERMES: What? No. Of course not.
MAJNOUN: I will never know the true meaning of love.
BENJY: It's me. I'm the asshole who everyone hates.
LYDIA, RONALDNIHO: All of life is torment and suffering.
BOBBIE, BELLA, ATHENA: We only live such that we may die.
AGATHA: Joke's on you, I'm already dead.
PRINCE: Can dogs apply for Canada Arts Council grants?
ATTICUS: What is the meaning of WORDS?!
PRINCE: I just need to look extra pathetic in time for my own death.
ROISE, FRICK, FRACK, MAX: VOTE TRUMP
HERMES: See? I gave some of them an authoritarian streak instead.
APOLLO: Pretty sure those were there to begin with.
ZEUS: This is why we can't have nice things.
– Chuck Palahniuk
Liked it. Haven't seen the movie; but don't feel like I need to. Mercifully, all the "don't talk about fight club" memes out there meant that the main bulk of the story was not spoiled, and can't be. Despite the numerous gifts Feminism has given everyone, there remains quite little out there that explores with the topic of masculinity and patriarchal pressures directly, if only because before Feminism, any such gender codes were simply innate in all things. Fight Club is one of the few I've ever encountered that deals with masculine insecurity in all its fearful rawness, yet I'm unsure as to follow the rest of Palahniuk's work, as I hear they tend to get a little too blow-hard.
– Douglas Coupland
I'm grouping each of these three very different books in a single entry simply because I've become convinced that Coupland's writing suffers from the same problems all-around. While they are very enjoyable to read in the moment of reading, once you are finished with them there is surprisingly little left to actually reflect on. There might be a moment or two that provokes thought, but when you actually dwell on it for a while, it eventually reveals itself to be little more than fluff or mere fashion.
This is more or less an effect of how hyped Coupland's "brand" has become after his first book's breakout success, especially within Canada. He exists only within his own marketing. One cannot read a Coupland novel and be truly satisfied simply because the books are over-advertised and cannot meet the wild expectations they set for themselves. The power of his own marketing was exemplary in his biography of Marshall McLuhan, opportunistically written and released close to the centenary of his birth; but I found it to be so offensively terrible for its Chapters-Indigo 30 dollar price that I've since expunged it from my shelves and will never allow it to return.
For a while, I *thought* I liked Coupland, but the more of him I read, the more frustrating I found him to be. How Coupland got to perform one of his books as a Massey Lecture on radio has less to do with his ability to evoke thought and more to do with the fact that he merely plays the part. Perhaps it is because I've fallen from his graces that my opinions of him are all the more harsh, but one cannot be co-opted by the massive mainstream marketing machine and live to tell about it unscathed.
– Sean Dixon
A play based around the thematic unit of Albrecht Dürer's 1506 oil painting "The Feast of the Rosary." The story takes place 100 years later in 1606, after the Roman Pope of the day excommunicated the entire city-state of Venice, amidst them, the remaining papist Catholics, and against Protestant Lutherans and Calvinists. It starts off with very big homages to Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, framing the play as a historical mystery with Archbishop Borromeo as the detective-inquisitor. Without giving much away though, its true aims are different than Eco's, and its ending is not married to what its beginning suggests. Part of its artistry is just how seamlessly it transitions from one to the other. The play finishes as a somewhat polemical work, not at all adhering to what we might consider the traditional structure of a drama. I wonder with what media intention Mr. Dixon wrote this in mind for: a play to be performed, or a script to be read? I felt I understood it better as a script, and I am curious if seeing it performed would even have the same effect at all.
– Agota Kristof
Alan Sheridan, David Watson, Marc Romano translations. A novel trilogy originally en français, collected into a single work via English translation. Each of the three novels was done by a different translator, and they seem to run the gambit of different styles of translation; making it feel as if each of the three novels have little to do with one another, despite the continued stories of the same characters. The first book is definitely the most fun to read out of the three, but how much one would get out of the entire trilogy depends on how tolerant one is to postmodernism.
– Benjamin Renner
En français. Saw bits and pieces of it here and there and finally tracked the full of it down. There is no English edition, but my tenuously Canadian understanding of French actually enabled me to read most of it, even if its actual francophone intention is for people far younger than I am. An extremely charming little book nonetheless.
– Scott F. Fitzgerald
The first "curriculum" book one reads in high school that is actually enjoyable of its own merits. Revisited later, and to largely the same effect, but I suspect it wouldn't nearly be quite as well known if the educational industry complex didn't tout it so fiercely.
– Margaret Atwood
While in High School, I got the terrible English teacher who only taught the thoroughly unenjoyable things, like J.D. Salinger and Robertson Davies. Imagine my jealousy when my other friends with the other teacher actually seemed to get enjoyable books, whose very chapters they would read to me with enthusiasm I thought Grade 12 English completely incapable of inspiring. I must've had all the the good bits of this book spoiled for me already, and gave the book the promise I would read it later with new eyes, after I had forgot the most of it. However, despite Miss Atwood's status as Canada's foremost literary and science fiction writer, when she arrived at Bookfest Windsor in 02013, I found her platitudal book tour publicity speeches to be completely and insultingly insipid, especially when compared to numerous actually interesting authors and presenters that had to open for her much-advertised act. Because of this, the book is likely to remain shelved and unread for quite some time yet.
– Stephen Marche
I was drawn to it based off the premise alone. It was to bend and meld together the all-too-common werewolf archetype into the higher thought of literary fiction, turning the common power fantasy of lycanthropy into the figure of ultimate weakness. I could not dare turn that down, even if the other opinion and article writing the same author did elsewhere made me cautious. It is a very male book, one of the very few I know of that tries to explore the oft-inconclusive feminist topic of patriarchal pressures as they apply to men. This was to my surprise, and I quite liked it as it read. Sadly, while I admire the ambition of the experiment, I don't think it succeeded as much as I would've liked. Part of it is because just how many grounds the book tries to cover: lycanthropic ghost story, existential horror, polemic on economic inequality, and multi-generational Great Gatsby drama. It tries to do so many things at once that it fails to excel at any one particular, leaving weaknesses in its argumentation that likely wouldn't withstand much literary criticism. On the marxist front, it doesn't quite make the full connection between the Wylie methods and the resulting world Cabot faces. On the feminist front, one of the unintended consequences may indeed be a very faint misogyny which reveals itself on reflection after the fact, which may or may not dampen things a little. It did what it thought was enough, yet still needed more. Despite all that, I like this book -- I would daresay I love this book; but given its very strict status as a dramatic tragedy in both consequence and theme, I am obliged to thoroughly despise what it represents.
– Camilla Gibb, Lee Henderson, Rebecca Rosenblum
I have a chronic distaste for the form of the literary short story in a similar way I have a chronic distaste for the book of poetry, and largely for similar reasons. However, there exist exceptions in each case, and for the Short Story, that comes in the form of Sarah Keevil, whose haunting work "Pyro" first captured my attention in EVENT Magazine volume 37.1, which I read, reread, recommended to others, over and over again, until my copy's spine became so worn and the pages began to fall out. I got this compendium of short stories purely because Keevil's work was in it. However, I've had such a hard time locating other stuff done by Miss Keevil. She has no online presence at all, and has not published much outside of obscure literary magazines.
– Rosemary Nixon
An author I've met a few times, and actually helped me to write the final versions of one of my own works. I only managed to read her first novel later on. I found it most interesting in its use of language to communicate different perspectives on all spectrums: build of character, social gender, developmental state of mind. However, it goes a bit too far in its differentiation as the story draws to a close. The final choice in narrating character has a style that reads far too quickly for what should be a more tragic and grovelling handful of scenes -- making a quick reader like me have the entire ending pass by them like speeding train. Should you read it for yourself, keep in mind at some point you will need to slow your own pace down in order to fit the story. (Don't worry; you'll know when.)
– Tracy J. Butler
Lackadaisy was one of the few web-comics I followed in high school that managed to make it to physical publication. Despite the high quality of both the writing and the artwork, being from a small press made getting a copy very difficult and expensive. I would've likely passed on ever holding the book were it not for the sentimental value.
When I was younger and perhaps more underestimating of the world's depravity, the activity of the furry fandom held remarkable appeal. The accessibility is what I admired the most. In visual art elsewhere, drawing human forms is a large roadblock for people just starting out. We have entire structures of our neural chemistry explicitly dedicated to the identification of real human figures, so it should come as no surprise the same discerning standard is applied in art as well. For a beginning artist, as I was then, “anthro” was a way getting around that barrier to entry. The proportions were much looser and could be judged by their own standards, which was an advantage it had over the crippling uniformity anime and manga offered for others in the same boat. It was enough to let any teenage understudy compete on the internet, even while lacking the years of practice otherwise demanded. (Miss Butler, too, first started on Lackadaisy when she was hardly even 20 years old.) I saw an immense possibility space within it, but that possibility space these days has been vastly squandered.
Fashion is a shifting sand, and with the rise of bara in 02009-onwards, furry was slowly re-purposed into a strange exburb of the LGBT. It happened very quickly on the English internet, and I painstakingly witnessed it take place on Japanese kemono sites as well. Gone were the lovingly crafted character profiles, gone were the fantastical and picturesque settings, gone was the focus on using these characters to tell a possible story of some kind. All the parts I liked about it were slowly whittled away, and a makeshift pornography industry was the vile monster that took its place. I don't deny its right to exist, but merely wonder why it had to happen at the cost that it did... It's a betrayal I am still wounded by, and haven't quite gotten over even after all this time.
Despite everything, Lackadaisy somehow was not a victim to the currents. The long-standing focus on character, drama, and story reminds me why I got into this business in the first place. Few things are ever so sacred as that.
– Lewis Carroll
The way public domain book pricing works, getting the full set of Carroll's works wasn't any more expensive than otherwise just buying one of his books. Alice in Wonderland certainly is a fun read and all, but I wonder if the Disneified version of it doesn't over-occupy our cultural imagination, especially since it goes largely out of its way to strike from the record the numerous puns on typography and language included in the original work.
– Bertolt Brecht
John Willet translation, originally read from the Desmond Vesey translation. My first play of Brecht. I was initially against reading Brecht due to having prior knowledge of him as examples in early communication theory case studies -- too much foreknowledge to feel comfortable -- but I was eventually turned around by a radio documentary of a modern Mother Courage production.
Very well constructed, it reads like a Socratic dialogue on the nature of science and how our understanding of the world is constructed. However, the mise-en-scene is all over the place. With fourteen different scenes and quite a number of stage settings, the play jumps through many years of Galileo's life, with some characters appearing as children in early acts and grown men in the next. While it wouldn't be impossible to act on the stage, I'm inclined to wonder if it wasn't originally intended for early cinema, given the point in time at which it was written.
I also ponder the core experience of the work hasn't aged well. Given how many advancements in space science were only made after Brecht's time, the results Galileo makes pains to prove seem all too obvious to the modern reader; whereas before they could've been treated with mild implausibility, the hypothesis of an obscure subject.
– Rob Swigart
A satirical comedy that originates in the American counterculture uprising after the Vietnam invasion of the 01960's. It clearly has an axe to grind against *something*, but I can only guess as to exactly what.
– Nino Ricci
A local author whom I've had the honour of meeting in person multiple times. Admittedly, my introduction to him was not the nicest one, as I was mandated to read Lives of the Saints via high school curriculum instead of by free choice; a cause to dislike of itself. Years later, while on the opposite end of town, a brand-name drug store whom I dread having to visit so often was having a used book sale for charity, and there I found the same school copy I had read -- wearing the same ink stamp on its sides, pilfered from the textbook storerooms and commandeered for sale under a somewhat corporatized cause. I bought it out of irony and reread. With aged eyes, I understood the reason I had so much trouble with reading it back in school was its unusual and ineffective choice of narrator. In a story about ostracism, the only true perspective should fall on the persecuted -- not the person related to them by chance. While it had its moments, the Lives of the Saints is a difficult to understand book simply because the majority of its own plot is inaccessible to the narrator.
– James Sturn
A graphic novel, though I'm not sure it gains all that much in this form. It tells one of those intensely personal and psychological stories that are supposed to feel drawn out and tortured to some effect, but when viewed from a outer, visual lens, even in imaginative metaphor, becomes a little less personalized in the process. Also, since the graphic novel demands quite a lot from their readers in terms of how they are read, this work risks passing by all too quickly. It's one of those instances where the same story might be reimagined in a purely textual form to the same or even greater effect. (One of the few graphic novels I've read that had that problem, the other being a library copy of Radiomaru's pre-Scott Pilgrim "Lost at Sea", though that particular one was so dronishly terrible that not even a literary porting would save it.)
– Franz Kafka
Susan Bernofsky translation, originally read from the Ian Johnston translation. My first work of Kafka's. I would fully admit I had some trouble digesting after finishing it, but reading a literary analysis by Vladimir Nabokov helped me form an understanding of the work afterwards. The emotional resonance is incredibly strong, yet I feel as if there was some important element that was lost -- not in translation, but time. Even though the Metamorphosis has aged very well, there is some dynamic between the characters that is either no longer possible, or simply no longer noticeable: something forever omnipresent, yet shoved underground as if it was taboo. As cerebral as it is, part of me simply wonders "why?" Not, "why" in terms of why Gregor Samsa awoke as a monstrous insect, but rather "why" this particular unusual and slipstream tale became canonical in the literary sense. What about the time in which it was written were the fears it articulated so well, and what is the status of it that still resonates? There is something to be found there, for certain, but I'm still unsure to the specifics.
Donald M. Frame translation. Found in a bargain bin next to individual works of Shakespeare. Read the Misanthrope for a while. Never could imagine the entire world speaking in rhyme for quite that long, even in translation.
– Rosemary Sullivan, Juan Opitz, Colleen Sullivan
An illustrated children's book I acquired after having the met the author. I believe the intended audience is for those less than 5 years of age. A musical book featuring a main character who is a drummer. Comes with an audio CD for musical accompaniment. I think the plot is ultimately a little too light, but I suppose the standards for the intended age group are judged differently.
– Janet Bingham, Rosalind Beardshaw
I got this book because the art looked cool. Targeted audience is those of less than three years old, or so I'm led to believe. Structured as a bedtime story. Upon close inspection, bedtime stories seem to be written quite differently from traditional stories. With the intent being that the listener fall asleep somewhere around three quarters the way through, the plot and development is nonexistent outside of borrowed parental assurances. I imagine this a narrative style more akin to poetry than other kinds of dramaturgy, and is difficult to pull off and very easy to get wrong. If this particular book is an exemplar of the field, I cannot be the judge.
(I would later find out that another book by the same two authors, with the same artwork, and same overall everything would later be published as "Daddy's Little Star." Retrospectively, perhaps this book is really meant more for the sake of the reader than the listener.)
– Suzette Mayr
Read upon recommendation from several other Canadian authors. A plethora of characters and sub-plots all tangled together with overlaps. A funny and impressive work to behold, undeniably well written, (with the brief aside of its nonstandard way of marking spoken dialogue,) and I'd go so far as to call it the Great Canadian Novel of this era, (but only sometime within the next 30 years as it is a little too far ahead of the curb right now.)
However... It's hard to clue in, but the only reason this novel works as well as it does is because it takes place in a suburban or outer-metropolitan setting, small in size and somewhat densely populated. Never stated outright, but if you notice that the students of the school are more or less freely able to wander about as they need to without the need to worry about busing, then that becomes clear. Should it have been set in a rural Canadian Catholic high school as opposed to an urban one, I would've had to call bullshit of the tallest possible magnitude on every single conceit the book operated upon. It is oppressively optimistic in the way it approaches the subject matter -- not quite propagandistic, but something that borderlines on mania. I couldn't help but think there was one very important aspect missing from it -- something that should've been there, yet not -- but whatever it was would've fallen outside the purview as a literary comedy.
Until the time when it could be properly hailed as a classic comes, Monoceros serves one of two possible uses: 1) giving to a suicidal gay teenager in order stave off the inevitable by a month or two, or 2) hiding several copies somewhere in a Catholic high school's library (assuming they still have one) to be highly entertained by the moral panic it will surely spark.
– David Petersen
Volumes 1 through 3, but still ongoing. A beautifully drawn series of graphic novels, notable for its detailed inking and an illuminated vellum texturing, mimicking the style of the tiny medieval world it creates. It's the one series of book I've ever read that wants so desperately to be a video game, yet is aware of its own ludological shortcomings and is fully resigned to its place as literary media. However, as it stands, it operates on a storyteller's debt; it spends the first two volumes with simple plots and shallow characters, under the assumption that it is setting up for something grand. It begins to realize this claim in the third volume with better characters and a more dynamic storyline, yet that debt still lingers. Whither or not Mouse Guard will break the limit of mediocrity anthropomorphic storytelling is so commonly afflicted with depends entirely on if Petersen can realize and surpass that intangible the first book could not make and only promise.
– David Petersen and Various Artists
Volumes 1 and 2, but still ongoing. Sidestories taken place within the Mouse Guard world, written by numerous writers and artists, framed by Mr. Petersen himself. Most are noncanonical to Mouse Guard, even though they make use of its vestigial features. However, if in textual media, the collection of short stories cannot offer the investment and pathos that a full novel could provide, then the story story in graphic novel form is but a fleeting breeze passing by. While I recall a number of them being beautifully illustrated, for the life of me I could not remember any one vignette specifically. By involving so many people in the work and absolving them of editorial autonomy, Petersen's little playground has a severe quantity over quality problem. Yet hope remains, as with the sister series that carries its name, it may yet get better with time. Hopefully.
– Umberto Eco
William Weaver translation. After a long-lost binge on trashy murder mystery novels during my teenage years, this book is all I could ever ask for a piece of historical mystery and literary fiction. Take note however: while I respect Mr. Eco's work as a semiotician, I am fully convinced after having read samples of his other literary works that this book is -- and shall remain -- the only good one he will ever write. The rest range from somewhat uninteresting (Baudolino) to offensively terrible (Foucault's Pendulum).
– Jon R. Flieger
A local author trying to bring a literary style of poetry to a hometown audience. A very small book, and probably be unremarkable to anyone outside our little Canadian bordertown's very limited highbrow reading public that really only exists in full for one week every October or November. Probably living proof that literary media is not and can never really be a local man's game. Also, if you are not from Windsor: I assure you, the title gives terrible advice. We don't have the highest concentration of strip clubs in all of Canada for no reason.
... thinking on it now, perhaps it's actually good advice. Who the fuck knows.
– Gabriel García Márquez
Gregory Rabassa translation. A long and winding work covering several generations of an egotistically-founded, isolationist town. It apparently is canonical to a subgenre of magical realism literature in Spanish with massive political connotations, but I was unaware of most of them upon my reading. It had a great start, better early half, lulls in the middle, somewhat meandering towards the finish, but wrapped up very well in the last moments.
– D.C. Simpson
Prehistronics (1997-2000) and Tofu Knights (2004-2005). A webcomic that temporarily gained traction as a newspaper daily in the Detroit Free Press for a few years. While it's probably a generational thing, I loved it. I don't suspect it will age very well, given the American political satire involved, but what DC Simpson managed to accomplish with Ozzy and Millie during the time was quite remarkable -- or so I thought.
It's actually quite a shame that after she finished Ozzy and Millie, the furries had given matters such a bad taint that her subsequent work inevitably failed as it did. If it was Miss Simpson's own undoing or a result of a peer pressure from what was undeniably part of her own fanbase, I really cannot say, nor do I want to find out.
Ozzy and Millie never found a traditional publisher, and could only get printed through internet mailing-on-demand services. This made finding it through traditional bookstores a very difficult proposition. My collection of Ozzy and Millie only covers a fraction the total amount of work Miss Simpson created during its more than 10 year long run. This particular collection is notable in that it is more representative of the majority visual style the comic used, the exact middle between its stiff ink markering from its early days, and its loosely brushed children's book style later days.
– Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Richard Howard translation. One of those books I loved dearly as a teenager, if only because that was the correct time to actually read it. In finding a bookstore copy, I overspent and splurged on getting a full colour hardcover that came in a blue felt and gold-lettered heavy cardstock encasing. Perhaps that should've been indicative to me the unbridled love of that book is a bit overshared... I somewhat wonder if revisiting it would evoke the same old feelings.
– Jonathan Ball
Poetry in the sense of it being experimental prose, which makes it a bit more accessible to literary types with a distaste for pretension. Mr. Ball is a fantastic writer, but this collection poetry falls prey to the usual pitfalls most collections of mostly unrelated poems suffer with, even through the loose thematic connections. Plus, the fact that it was a follow-up work to the absolutely perfect Clockfire will make whatever light one views it under naturally unfair to itself. It contains its gems, though; my favourites being "WOLVES" and "That Most Terrible of Dogs".
– Michael Healey
Canadian political satire in the traditional sense. Set in an alternate universe where the Quebec NDP Orange Crush was a Blue Crush instead, going to the Conservative party who captured the real-life majority nonetheless. The Prime Minister takes one of the rookie MPs under his wing to teach her what she needs to know about politics, covering the unflinching curriculum of all the political dirty tactics that the Harper Conservatives are known for. I am biased reading this because I never liked the Harper Conservatives in the first place: I recall during high school when they won their first minority on the merits of a stricter juvenile justice bill; whipping up the fears of rascally teenagers in an aging population, an appeal to emotion at the expense of teens who weren't even allowed to vote against them in protest. (That was my own "Welcome to Politics" moment...) However, the Harper in this play is not the same amoral monster in our collective imaginations. Not entirely unlikable and even sympathetic at times - especially in Scene 5, which is my favourite moment in the work - but still, somehow, almost unaware of the swollen depths his own nihilism truly extends. This play was originally almost banned from production due to libel chill from the Conservative Heritage Minister's meddling with the Canada Arts Council's theatre funding. I think it could be revived with better chances as a readable book, but only if it comes equipped with a bibliography and research appendix. Grounding in some historical basis is necessary, lest the play be woefully misinterpreted like a Machiavellian prince; a very real risk this play will have in the long run. We need less Harpers in this world, not more.
– Tom Stoppard
More Absurdism. In the middle between Ionesco's loud and over the top comedy and Beckett's dour depression. Interestingly, the first version of this play I could track down was not the stage play, but the screen play. Having compared the two forms together, both penned by Stoppard's hand, it cemented my belief that the screenplay is an all-out terrible form of writing and is thoroughly unenjoyable to read.
– Thomas Wharton
A semi-modern fantasy novel that makes full use of its own thematic style in ways that set it apart from other works of fantasy and science fiction, making it wholly unique in the world of speculative fiction simply by virtue of the subject matter it chooses to explore.
– Neil Gaiman and Various Artists
Volumes 1 through 10, also containing the sideworks of "The Dream Hunters" and "Endless Nights". The Sandman originally presents itself within the works of the old DC Superhero comics, yet works quickly to evolve and break itself out of that worn mould into something more mysterious and outright surreal. It is an interesting example of what happens when someone with highbrow education writes very wholeheartedly for an all-too-often oversold portion of popular culture. It is a very demanding series. Fans of nostalgic superhero comics who are not familiar with the breadth of the English literary canon will need to rise to meet the occasion The Sandman presents. Hardcore bookworms and uppity scholars of ancient mythologies will need to humble themselves immensely if they want to get access to the rich tale Gaiman weaves. Those new to reading graphic novels mind find The Sandman inaccessible outright. It is a difficult work for most audiences, but like playing Dark Souls or La-Mulana, it can be quite rewarding if you can brave it.
– Jack London
An old edition I was lucky to find in a Prince Edward Island bookshop, which I read in full on the long ride home through the New Brunswick and Quebec countryside. My only Jack London work, though I understand his others are quite different. Has a fantastic first half, but gives up halfway through and decides to try aping up a little Robinson Crusoe in the second half, and not to great effect. Worthwhile enough for the first half alone.
– R. E. Morris, “Blithewine”
Or "The Titillations of Martyrdom, A Series of Vignettes Designed To Induce Ejaculations of Religious Fervour." Also known as "Weird Catholicism.pdf", it is a small chapbook inbetween the line of prose in style and poetry in presentation. No overriding narrative or stylistic concerns, but it reads almost like a written improv or an underground sketch comedy, jumping wildly from one ridiculous scenario to the next, lingering only so far as to let the audacity sink in before it crosses the line a second time. Its presentation and rare release would almost be indie in a punk sort of way, at least if it weren't for the rigorous Catholicism of its duende.
With no known print edition, I copied it out myself and taped it into one of my spare journals so it could share the shelves with my other books. I have this 19-page document there on a literary promise: Blithewine's prose is so good, that should he ever publish a book-length work I immediately want to rub my face all over it. His written form is as darkly beautiful as his choice in content. He has this uncanny ability of writing the most delicious paragraphs, that in only reading one small excerpt you immediately crave more and want to know the rest. It's a writing skill I would kill for, and I probably will.
– Harry Karlinsky
A novel so dedicated to its own verisimilitude that it completely succeeds at sounding like a badly written historical biography. It is obsessively researched and is one of the few major pieces of fiction I have, in the company of Thomas Wharton's Salamader, that comes equipped with an extensive postscript and bibliography. I'm not sure if I should admire its continued attempts to sound as real as possible, because that dedication to form made it somewhat of a boring read, with its academic and research-driven tone of objectivity creating a Freudian displacement in the emotional connections to the main characters of the work: the relatively minor character of Mr. Nobel getting the crux of the character development, while the leading character of Mr. Sohlman is ignored as he dictates the core action. (Was that intentional, I wonder...?) To some frustration, it does not really get super interesting until chapter 10 out of the total 18, and by then most other readers would have given up on the lull following the strong first chapter, leading me to think it might've been interesting to see a version told using anachronistic arrangement. While the results may be variable, I still respect the ambition of this experiment. The story required a lot of setup, and it was at its best when those moments finally could arrive. The Stonehenge Letters is an example of an undervalued genre of fiction one could call the paradoxical name of "historical science fiction", and it is the first of the kind I've ever read.
– Khaled Hosseini
A tale of two Muslim wives suffering under a tyrannical husband over the course of 30 years in late-century Afghanistan. While the book is not bad, I suspect the temporary amount of praise it got during its mid-02000's release was largely an attempt at opportunistic political propaganda in the wake of the United States' armed incursions into the Middle East. I would not have even picked it up had my university bookstore not marked it down to 99 cents -- the reason for which I discovered being the last chapters of the book were misprinted on only half the pages.
– Oliver Jeffers
A picture book written for children, though I am unable to pinpoint the intended age group. Children's books by this particular author are interesting to me, as they are of the few I've been able to locate in the field that can balance age accessibility while still following proper dramatic form -- actual story with plot, even it is simplest expression, without the otherwise condescending See Jane, See Jane Run, Run Jane Run. The illustration style is particularly charming in and of its own right.
– Jonathan Safran Foer
Less of a work of fiction and more a piece of sculpture. Cannot be traditionally "read", but must be "seen" to be believed. Similar to le Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, the book is only fully enabled by somewhat of a gimmick; but, it is not incapable of some crafty poeticisms or two, even if they were clearly unintended.
– Alan Moore
A friend of mine had an almost religious obsession with the movie, which led us both quite naturally to the book. However, it turned out to be one of those rare and almost unnatural times when the movie was quite honestly better than the book. The graphic novel, despite being closer to Moore's original anarchistic intentions, is an utter mess with many different unrelated plot strings and a cluttered visual style with multiple characters that are visually indistinct and difficult to tell apart. I know there is a wonderful story of freedom and political intrigue in there, but the very frame it surrounds itself in is chaotic. I suspect someone more familiar with the political context Moore was writing in could tell me strengths of this work, but I found it very difficult.
– Alan Moore
The one piece of Alan Moore's writing that I actually ended up liking quite a bit -- while I certainly did try with his others. I first found it on New Year's Eve back in 02009 and binged it for nine hours straight into early 02010. Book was better than the movie, though the movie certainly did try very damn hard.
– Richard Adams
A very cute book that I first read ages ago out of my high school's library, yet was unable to finish before returning. Other literary types tell me, having finished it themselves, that it wasn't a very good book in retrospect, yet I massively liked the adventurous first half. Perhaps one day I'll finish it and have to re-evaluate my position.
– Oliver Jeffers
A picture book written for children, though I am unable to pinpoint the intended age group. Even though I am admittedly not quite of this author's audience, I still found his books to be interesting reads -- at least, relatively. I ultimately didn't buy any more of them, though, as I developed a bad habit of being able to read and finish them all without even leaving the bookstore. I suppose that's an occupational hazard when you write books of less than 500 words. (One of the standouts he also wrote was called "The Marvellous Book-Eating Boy", which actually played quite a bit with typographical elements; a feat I previously thought a bit advanced for a picture book.)
– William Shakespeare
A friend of mine managed somehow to get an entire Shakespeare folio on sale for just three dollars. Lucky bastard. The lowest I could find was still a full twenty with tax. While re-reading Hamlet and Macbeth are still fun and all, the version of I could find lacked the historical annotations so common to my old high school texts that I had no idea I was so reliant on until I no longer had them.
– Christian Bök
Book one, of however many. Bök continues my impression of him as the epitome of style over substance, now bringing that distinction to scientific rigour. Perhaps I am not so much mad at him as what he enables in others. My introduction to Bök was in the same breath as Kenneth Goldsmith, and Goldsmith was so obviously awful that I simply assumed Bök must've been as well. He's not, and he deserves the praise he gets; yet my heart refuses to sincerely embrace him. Even if he is literally the One Good Sound Poet in all of human civilization, and even further if his craft is so finely honed that he becomes the paragon prophet of the English language, I absolutely cannot conscionably allow it in my own mind. To read poems by Bök is to be locked in a prison of broken signs, to go to a place where nothing truly matters, to remind yourself that even if we tried our hardest we will all die tomorrow and there would be nothing left.
He seems to be aware of that criticism. The xenotext itself, which oddly isn't even in this introductory book and still seems to be forthcoming, promises to be the one piece of culture which will out-survive the entire life of the planet Earth -- encoded into the genetic sequence of the extremophilic bacterium, deinococcus radiodurans. It is fascinating, but only as technique; not theory. I can't get over the fact that it isn't really about anything. ... and even the xenotext would preserve only form, but not the purpose.
Bök makes language a candy, so sweet on the tongue, but however savoury it is against instinct. True language is the thick hide of a terrible monster, its fangs ripping ever deeper into our doomed skulls, and it hungers yet.
– Terry O'Reily, Mike Tennant
The book form of a CBC Radio show that aired for some time, to moderate success. A book on marketing and advertising, though somewhat deceptive in its true aims. While I do not doubt the honesty of Mr. O'Reily's dedication to public broadcasting, a close analysis of this book would reveal him to not be a completely reformed adman. The book serves to sell on the concept of advertising itself, and any criticisms it makes towards the practice are at times much duller than they rightfully could have otherwise been. Can serve as a basic history on the development in technique of consumer marketing over a limited history, but when reading make absolutely certain to keep one's guard up. If one is lucky enough to find a radio archive of the show, I'd recommend just listening to it over the having the book, as there is little more the book offers. Just a word of warning: the first seasons are great, but it really goes downhill after Tennant leaves.
– Jono Bacon
An early book on community management gimped by its overwhelming anecdotalism within the open source linux world. While it did leave me with a new source of admiration for open source software, the theories in this book are noticeably difficult to extrapolate into other spheres of work. Considering Mr. Bacon wishes for this to be the central tenant of the book's thesis, that limits its overall usefulness. Part of me wonders what exactly it would be like if the very texts of this book were also open source.
– Jesse Schell
One of the primary, albeit pre-Mandeleevian, books on basic ludology. Covers almost every aspect of game production in many different fields. However, his opinions and recommendations on narratology within the craft are, I believe, highly misled.
– Alan Fletcher
A large and highly illustrated tome representing 30 years worth collected wisdom by a highly practised graphic designer, covering many topics within the field of information design. This eccentric book was originally a hidden little gem I found in one of my high school classrooms, a shared treasure of the history teacher and her students.
– Ellen Bryant Voigut
A mostly mediocre book on craft writing focusing on traditional poetry. Has some good bits, but does not really offer a uniting idea to its multiple components, some of which are are just not very well explained at all. If one does not have an ear for poetry, this book is not sufficient enough to gain it.
– Joline Blais, Jon Ippolito
I originally got this as research materials for some writing, but the specific component it had which I needed turned out to be very small. Fortunately, the rest of the book was still alright. It reads like a second-generation art historian trying to understand the impact of digital technologies and the Internet upon art; "second" generation implying they have enough research, breadth, and depth to avoid the common pratfalls of looking at a new thing and drawing hasty conclusions. No triumphalism, no alarmistry, just well-thought out questions with very good examples and edge cases. It's the type of book I wish I had when I was grappling against FLARF, Goldsmithian uncreative, and other Oulipo-derivative styles of writing, since Blais and Ippolito's phrasings on proceduralism and process versus/over product put the questions I had on generative art in a much clearer way.
– Dorothea Brande
One of my original craft writing books upon recommendation from my original writing teacher on the discipline of the craft, written from what looks like the original onset of the creative publishing industry. Interesting in its criticism of the early (and in some sense, modern) craft writing industry, as well as its semi-mystical approach to harnessing creative talent: A 01930's version of what would later by discovered with neurological dualism in the 01970's. It seems I've inherited my old teacher's dyslexia in continuing to mispronounce the author's name as "Doro The Abrand", intentionally or not.
– Matt Mattus
One of my first books I found on corporate media homogenization, though not the best example of the entire subject. Written by an artist who offers some practical solutions to the problem, but it is quite clear that he is operating from within the heavy media system and his aims are not critical enough to be a true panacea to the problems he addresses. I suppose it is only natural, in Mr. Mattus' case, to not bite the hand that feeds him, yet his small media solutions would simply have no effect in the large media aggregate. While I would normally have classified this book as a marketing text, it remains ambiguous work that blurs the line between authentic artistry and commercial design. I suspect, had this book achieved any level success (which it thankfully did not), that critics from the Underground such as Anne Elizabeth Moore would've found much to reproach in the Mattus method.
– Henry Horenstein
Can offer a crash course in traditional film photography for those all too familiar with the ease and comforts of digital photography, as circumstance found I had to quickly acquire. Also a good grounding text for understanding the nature of single-lens-reflex cameras, lens types, and filters, which is common even to digital capture, and arguably to greater effect. I felt it did not quite cover the exact methods for chemical development in necessary detail for it to be completely clear to a first-time attempter, but thankfully circumstance did not require me to actually cover that part. Traditional photography is still interesting in the oddities of visual technique it can still accomplish, such as double exposure and also the unique grainy texture common to black and white film, especially when digitally scanned afterwards. However, I much prefer colour film photography, not only for the strange and unusual colour capture that film is capable of, but also due to the fact that its development process is an international standard and is much less of a crap-shoot in attempting.
– Anna Klingmann
An odd book sitting in the middle between my forays into the study of architecture and the study of marketing. While it was useful to me in writing a few essays, I never actually could stomach the idea of reading it in full, if only because I am untrained enough as an architect to understand the bulk of her concepts, and the idea of actually reading marketing material is still somewhat nauseating to me. It makes me wonder just who exactly this book's desired reader really is, because only in my deepest and most paranoid fears about this capitalist world would any architect be versed in the dark art of branding. If one should want a counterpoint to what this book purports, see the ironically named Steward Brand's book on architecture within time.
– Robert E. Kraut, Paul Resnick
A primer in basic online sociological design published by the MIT Press. One of the few of its kind, and the only one to support itself with a large array of research. It is reflective of the time in that it differentiates between the olden style of online forums and the newer inventions of social networks, which it identifies as identity communes and bonds communes, and is quite detailed about the very stark differences between them. The book, though, is probably most interesting in what its supporting research says about completely different areas of social endeavour than it does about community management specifically, yet I cannot tell if this would be the bias of the authors showing through, or just a completely unintended side effect of the exact points they were trying to make.
– Corvus Corax
Technically not a book, but a music CD songbook whose album has been replaced with a small hardcover book and whose lyric sheets form the binding, with the cardstock insert for the CD on the back cover. A clever idea, and might make me more of a music affectionato if done more often. Covers a full operatic set based on both religious and secular medieval poetry written and performed in Latin, with an accompaniment of both medieval and modern orchestral instruments. Sadly, it was only published in German and the translations of the Latin are inaccessible to me.
– David Starker
One of the more ethical, albeit also one of the harder to find, books on persuasion. Given to me not as an actual volume but instead as a series of ring-binder printouts from one of my more interesting teachers, even if I only knew him for a short while. Starker has a bad habit of repeating the same things over and over, but his work is not singular and tries to find common strings between multiple diverse fields in which persuasive tactics are used. Reading a lot of craft writing books beforehand made many of the concepts feel familiar to me, as they were largely the same things, but under different names. It is not a magic-bullet solution to changing people's minds, but a generalized framework to keep in mind only for when one is truly serious about their persuasion, and is simply ineffective when attempted casually. The ultimate thing that sets this book apart from other attempts at outright manipulation, is the central concept of closure: the very moment when the mind is changed. Closure is something a person must reach on their own, and while you may lead them to it on the best of days, it is not a path that any ethical persuader can force someone to take.
– Orson Scott Card
I was aware of Mr. Card in that I know he wrote a book that was very popular with others I knew when they were younger -- Ender's Game, if I recall correctly. I was also aware that Mr. Card got himself into a nasty public relations bind when he hit the Born-Again-American-Fundamentalist blend of Christianity a little too hard and ended up saying a few nasty things which isolated close to a full half of his original audience. His personal views aside, this textbook he wrote on craft writing in regards to character development did not contain any such flaws, but also did not contain anything I felt was truly new or a unique way of looking at the old subject. Competent, but did not excel in doing so, which I mostly track to its unusually short length for a craft writing textbook. It might be a decent starting point for a new writer who needs to manage their time a bit more tightly than others, maybe. While I cannot say I know what the best craft writing book on character development would be, I can say I at least know of one other book in relation to this one that covers a much larger depth of analysis and technique than Mr. Card was commissioned to put into this text.
– Alberto Manguel
The written port of Manguel's 02007 Massey Lecture for CBC Radio. A series of five presentations that can be better understood when listened to rather than read, and probably can be freely found to listen to online, if one can hide under a Canadian proxy temporarily. It is a dissertation on the nature of using literature to understand the ever-elusive Other, and a strong polemic on the role of literature in the modern century, especially the later chapters on the corrupting nature of modern publishing.
– John Vorhaus
A craft writing book specializing in method for comedy. Humour existing only in its written form cannot impart the necessary sense of timing needed to manage a comedic response, and no singular book would ever give someone the necessary style and taste to develop truly unique subject matter for a comedic routine. As a result, it is slightly misled to believe that one can learn how to write comedy from any one book, but I found Vorhaus is useful less as a book on comedy writing and more as a book on comedy editing. In the least, it gives an editor a few good ground rules to work with when trying to take a rough draft of a comedic work, to know where and when to cut (or refrain) so the essential form is not compromised where traditional editing falls flat. That, and the chapter on practical jokes was absolutely amazing.
– Celia Pearce, Artemesia
A doctoral thesis written as a virtual ethnography on the nature of a particular MMORPG community, how they lost their homeland as a part of corporate restructuring and began the groundswell to reclaim it. Likely one of the first of its kind. Was a nostalgic read for me, given my own history with KWRPG, and Avlein's KPO in particular.
– Amy Jo Kim
An ancient and outfashioned book on early website design in the late 01990's and early 02000's internet. It is notable for its unique and humanistic method in designing online social spaces, as it was written before the insurgence of online advertising and social network data collection that has changed all newer texts in the field for the worst. It was the book I wish I had a full ten years before I could finally track it down, and its purehearted methodology ensures stills holds up in time, even after the business and the technology have already moved on. Though, perhaps I'm just being nostalgic.
– Linda Serger
One of my original craft writing books from my high school's library.
– Daniel Harris
One of my favourite works of essay in English. Despite the subtitle, it is not an academic work, nor is it your usual marketing study. Its frighteningly objective viewpoint can strike fear into what was previously the ordinary. Defining the right voice to read this work in is a difficult choice to make, though my preferred method is to read it with an ominous dread.
– Keiichi Matsuda
Not actually a book proper, but a large PDF I thought was interesting enough that I printed it out and gave it a simple binding so that it may find company in my other books on architecture. From what I understand, it was written a master's thesis, and certainly is one of the more fanciful works on architecture I've ever encountered. It tries to extrapolate the effects of nascent forms of AR (augmented reality) on the practice and style of city building, city planning, and structure forming. The tone it writes in is so neutral and the conclusions it draws are so alarmist that one cannot reasonably tell if it is being either hyperbolic in what the over-advertised dystopian future holds, or if it is in fact actively promoting it. Matsuda goes a bit too far in the assumptions, as even the most conceited bourgeoisie will eventually reject the hypermediated consumerist nightmare Matsuda paints in order to demand a calm connection to the real, even temporarily, even if that real is a little boring. This book, though, is at least notable for me when I had my once chance to meet Lemon Hound writer Sina Queyras, when she presented her thoughts in poetry on the nature of digital media, clearly coming from a place of enamoured ignorance, and rendered unable to answer at least one mildly informed question on the core difference between VR and AR. *snark*
– Christopher Trollope (President), Jonathan Ball (Managing Editor)
I have a small collection of various literary journals -- Grain, EVENT, Prairie Fire -- but many of them are dour and academic and operate on old institutional legacy alone, doing very little to hype and present their well-earned materials to an audience of general readers and not to an audience of other writers. I grew weary of their lot all too quickly, but the only literary magazine I actually ended up liking in any fashion was Dandelion, whom Mr. Ball was the editor of before I had ever even known him. It had this wonderful underground-like quality to it, with cheap typography and a wide array of strange and unusual art installations that did a lot of welcome readers into the texts they presented. Sadly, I could only ever track down one copy of volume 34.1, which contained a short story by Joel Katelnikoff that I quite liked. I never could find more of it, though.
– Derek Powazek
One of the very few of its kind written at the edge of the original dotcom bubble about online community, by my count of which there is only three. Powazek lies in the exact middle, with Jo Kim soaring high above him and Preece far below. At the time of its writing, Powazek knows less than he lets on; he is very clear about the social mission he partakes, but can only speak in generalities as a designer. He tries to link things together by interviewing multiple pioneers of the early and middle web, offering less practical information and something more of a historical perspective -- even calling upon Howard Rheingold, who surprised me with his early book on the matter even back in 01993! Sadly, Jo Kim's methods are clearly much better than Powazek's, both at the time and even now. On the other hand, Jo Kim has since forsaken her writing on the topic of community building, while Powazek has continued to update his interest. Given that state of matters, Powazek might become the more authoritative writer of the two over time, even if his newer knowledge is no longer in book form.
– Trevor Owens
This was a book that needed to be written, and it is with some degree of sadness that I say that.
Since 02009, I’ve always been on the lookout for research material as it relates to the building and maintenance of web community software. It comes with the territory of having once been a community admin myself, as well as having admired and befriended so many others who accepted the burden of being a moderator. We still bemoan the new world of mass-audience “social media” and all that it lacks. It’s not just the ineffective moderation in how these sites could never possibly match the demand their massive scale produces, nor in the rampant trolling and hate speech that festers from it, but also in the vanishing of the possibilities. The rise of websites such as Facebook, MySpace, and Google+, along with the craze of “your internet self is your real self” that followed in their wake, signaled the end of cyberspace as an endless frontier and turned the Internet into a tool of social control for the powerful and privileged. Things may have gotten better as a few second-generation social networks eased up on the heavy-handedness, but most of the damage has still been done.
I owe a lot to the web communities I first came to know around 02002 and 02003. I quite literally would be dead right now if it were not for them. They were the ones first formed within the halcyon days of cyberspace liberation, and were a damn sight better than what marketing companies wanted “Web 2.0” to replace them with. I quickly realized if I wanted them to still be around, I would need to dedicate myself to preserving and improving upon their tradition. A lot of the social software we used at the time is now outdated; they were complex systems that many of us could not modify or repair to suit our own needs. No matter how much better old forum software might be in terms of organization, it would all be for nothing if we couldn’t make the simplest of adaptations. I quickly searched out whatever sparse research I could find on community software, which was no easy task given how historically recent the whole subject still is. Works of academic rigour only started to come out after 02011, and until then there were only “gurus” and “practitioners.” I sought out authors like Powazek, Jo Kim, O’Keefe, Bacon, and Howard – all the ones that me and the other mods wished we had known about 10 years prior. ... and they’re all here in this book too! Trevor Owens compiled this PhD thesis as a meta-study of over 28 of the rarest pre-02011 books on community software design, in a grand summary of all their methods!
… which is why it might hurt to see them all so viciously torn to shreds.
The history that Owens lays out is one of an ideological tension: how the dynamic between enabling freedom for software users dovetails strictly against the power of the admin. While Owens has some skin in this game as a user of this same software, his perspective is one of the future librarian which must play internet archaeologist to the remains of old community archives. To him, moderation is an ethical quandary in which any one political being with the power to shape or modify an existing discourse puts a strict limit on what the final result of that media can express, even if that power is seldom ever used. It’s a very simple and reasonable argument that Chomsky and Herman applied to broadcast media systems and Owens shows similar filtering models that can be applied here; not only in when moderation tools operate upon threads, or even when the dynamics of database software puts strict limitations on what could be expressed, but also in how moderators employ social dynamics to influence behavior towards specific goals. Like photographs, web communities are not simply a window to a time once real, but are constructions which further construct what they represent – and this poses a whole dynamic of problems to historians who might want to use them as source material.
The rhetorical analysis of these old textbooks is one of ownership and control, and that has remained a relative constant even while social software underwent several shifts in understanding. When the field of web community construction first formed, it was quickly untethered from any institutional backing because of the move to the WWW. Those who wished to work in the burgeoning field had to pitch the merits of their craft to anyone who could employ them: companies, brands, and corporations. From Jo Kim and Powazek to even later players like Howard, these books were not so much contributions to a field of research as they were prospectuses for the author’s own consultation business. (A constraint only Jono Bacon would be free of, and possibly Kraut/Resnick even though they were not a part of Owens’ study.) So when these books talk about what to do for “your” community, it is a double entendre: equally about the community you belong to as it is about the mass audiences and intellectual properties of its patron owner.
This, of course, is awful and completely misses the point of why building such communities is important. I should belong to the community; it does not belong to me. To do otherwise employs the same cart-before-horse ideology of for-profit capitalism within a place it strictly does not belong, which even practitioners like Powazek eventually had to concede that there is just no social media business model that allows profit of any sort. Sadly, the technology itself is what enabled this expansion. The freespirited nature of the communitarian and BBS eras of cyberspace homesteading was result of people seeing new possibilities while still being a little hazy on how exactly it worked under the hood. Once phpBB, vBulletin, and others like it were released with coummity software presented as a prefabricated construction for anyone to use, it began the trend where the content produced by these systems were ownerships by the managers and administrators of each installation. It gave rise to an age of web communities as form of privatized media, tiny dictatorships, and company towns. (We even see the more corporatized aspect of it today in how the job of “community manager” exists, as opposed to “community nurturer.”) The MySQL-based developments of phpBB eventually led to Web 2.0, and some admins began dropping the community aspect altogether. Owners gave up the hassle of moderation and settled for WordPress blogs with comment sections for their own social gratification: a practice that had way too many theoretical flaws with it even by the standards of social software theory at the time. The lack of a level playing field between the owners and commenters led the way for increased aggression in its userbase, and we only have to look at comment sections on news websites or YouTube channels today to see unfortunate result of what happens without communion.
I’ve never before felt such a wild range of emotions while reading about something I cherish so deeply. For the longest time I had grown so attached to the communitarian ethic these authors had provided, even if I was blind to the critical flaws Owens highlights. The betrayal of it isn’t what gets me; in some ways, I knew that part already. I had only placed so much importance on the earlier gurus like Jo Kim because they still talked about their users as, y'know, people; much unlike the more modern post-Web 2.0 writings like Gavin Bell’s Building Social Web Applications (02009, O'Reilly Media) where any given user was simply a target demographic to be mined for metadata which could then be sold off to an advertiser. What gets me is Owens’ suggestion of original sin in the building social software; how what caused the downhill roll was there from the beginning, and that was the need for control. This... I don't know how to respond to.
I totally understand the way he has to approach the matter of moderation as an historian, a removed and neutral observer to whom absolutely anything is fair game, but even relics once had to live through the problems presented before them. While Owens is at no point wrong in what he proves, it doesn’t make it any less frustrating. His analysis lives in a world where trolls and problem users either do not exist or are a necessary part of the overall mosaic, which is completely insensitive to those of us in the here and now. An analysis of moderation tools cannot take place without knowledge of the community rules which they exist to enforce. These regulations are a record of past mistakes and lived experiences, and are necessary to prevent shared spaces from devolving into mimetic rivalries, flame wars, and (now with alarming frequency) hate speech. Even the superstitious beliefs of old BBS systems for limiting users with connections faster than 300 baud must have been borne out by the observable reality they faced, if they knew the real reasons behind it or not. (Posters with faster connections overposting compared to the others, making them feel like the playing ground was uneven; or ruining the pace of the, until then, slow-and-methodological conversation.) When I limit the use of a board’s private messaging system to users over the age of 18, I carry in that control a previous history of having dealt with problem-users abusing those systems to sexually harass the younger 13 year old community members. This is what a good communitarian is supposed to do! Do large social networks take that practice and mix up the scale to the point of having an opaque surveillance state? Sure. Do bad communitarians also exist who just run roughshod over it all to be the king of their castle, like Free Republic's JimRob? Yes, of course, but that's why there is still value in improving the research behind web community software, in order to build up that body of knowledge for everyone. I am sympathetic to what Owens is trying to do as an archivist, but his analysis on moderation tools leaves out how they might be there for a reason other than the Freudian Projection of the administration. Yet he extends this caution to even the threat of moderation, the psychological implications of having moderators around, and even how through design affordances that moderators may want to promote particular kinds of conversation over others. He extrapolates from Burrhus Frederic Skinner and Erving Goffman as they relate to the methods moderators employ, when he should have really been talking about Jürgen Habermas or even Thomas Hobbes.
It's strange, really. If it were Chomsky and Herman talking about how propaganda systems in broadcast media enforce a kind of self-censorship regimen on its actants in favour of the media ownership, I would totally go “yeah man, they're a fucking hivemind!” ... and that's partly because the majority of the old broadcast media have only ever brought me suffering and frustration. However, when Owens comes along implies exact same thing to something I actually like, something that has brought me much meaning and joy, the tables turn and I suddenly realize why people hated Chomsky so much for being an annoying little pedant. But... I have my principles, and just because I don't like the conclusion Owens reaches doesn't mean I can deny it outright. This was a book that needed to be written; it's just a question of what to do with it.
– Etienne Wenger, Nancy White, John D. Smith
This was my first book on communities of practice, which Wenger had popularized quite a lot back in the 01990's early internet. I had sterred clear of it because Wenger's style was so obviously biased towards adapting Internet use for large, already-existing corporations. At a surface level, it never seemed to me like anything other than falsely glib human resources cookery dressed up with all the latest and most fashionable buzzwords, much unsuited for the more informal settings where I plyed my material. I would still classify it as such, but I was at least able to glimpse the more theoretical basis upon which they operated: "learning" as applied in the most non-pedagogical means possible. While there still isn't anything wrong with it, something about it rang hollow to me. The book's method can be so pro-bureaucracy sometimes that, even if I cannot question the pure effectiveness of the technique (... which judging by the brass-tacks it finally got down to in Chapter 6, it most certainly is,) I feel they miss the primary reason why community can be so important and powerful on the individual level.
Since reading this book, I've been able to revisit some of the theoretical foundations upon which communities of practice were based, including a breif stint with Wenger's original text on the subject from an academic library, as well as seeing where the school of thought managed to fit into the practice of organizational behavior in the corporate world generally. To summarize the entire field based on the subject of "knowledge management": if you are anywhere in a large business or government service, and part of your work requires you to manage extremely technical information, approach the subject as if you were a librarian. Wenger spends a lot of time and many case studies talking around the subject, but that's still essentially what it boils down to. While this seems like a simple enough idea, putting it into effect can prove difficult. Despite the wishes and aspirations of any organization who wishes to adapt Wenger's theory into practice, their workers still have a regular job to do. Assuming the responsibilities of department librarian will often be seen as an imposition on their regular duties, by both the workers and the managers alike, even when being a community of practice is still seen as a worthwhile goal. The idea of just hiring a dedicated librarian, too, is often never considered. Accordingly, communities of practice (or the appearances thereof) became simply another means for organizations to extract surplus value out of their own skilled workforce.
At the end of the day, the only domain in which I've seen the forethought regarding communities of practice be applied in an actually-useful way, is in how educators try to anticipate for the actions of their own students in asynchronous learning environments. It makes sense for the topic's pseudo-pedagogy to eventually be adopted by actual-pedagogy, but that success seems limited to my eyes. Any community of practice successfully made by a classroom will just be torn down at the end of a year, on account of it being a classroom. This revolving-door of pedagogical practice leaves me suspicious regarding the long-term viability of communities of practice in general.
– William Strunk Junior, EB White
Was a popular craft writing book for a while covering most topics in advanced grammar, but I hear it has fallen out of favour lately. Wouldn't surprise me. It is a useful crutch while starting out, one kinda has to outgrow it eventually. Good for its short length, but I believe Noah Lukemann covers the breadth of this little book in much greater detail.
– Robert Bringhurst
The 4th edition. One of the masterwork texts in the entire field of typography, covering both the technique and the lettered history of the form. Also covers a more enlightened approach to graphic design. My first work of Bringhurst's, though I would later discover that he would be considered a heavyweight in the Canadian literary circuit. I almost had the chance to meet him in person one year at a humanities research group, but sickness prevented such. Though, I must admit, I don't always agree with some of the propositions. Perhaps it's just my own personal quirk that I love sans-serif type with justified ragging.
– Prophet Muhammad, Thomas Cleary
A highly abridged English translation of the holy Qur'an that I found in a seaside bookshop on Prince Edward Island and read late into the night at a cottage on the tidepool shores. I was enormously interested in finally reading the Qur'an, and even moreso given I was already familiar with the ancient translation work of Thomas Cleary from other sources; a fated pairing that appealed to me directly. However, I began to suspect that this particular translation wasn't all that up to snuff of the regular Islamic quality as the work went on and the abridgement became more apparent. It renders the prophet's highly rhythmic and structured rhyme into modernist free verse, which despite the translator's notes assuring the semantic correctness of his method, made it more an object of poetic admiration and less of a window into a newfound faith. Still remained a fascinating read, despite Cleary's shortcomings.
– James P. Carse
A highly unusual book that can either be interpreted as a work of ludology, sociology, psychology, or philosophy, depending on how one approaches it. A tiny little volume that has long been out of print. When it was first published, it was not well received, but has since gained a sizeable following as people realized its importance to multiple fields.
– Noah Lukemann
A craft writing book focusing on the editing process. One of the first craft writing books I read, though that was all the way back in high school and I might not remember the most of it. Functional for what it offered, but I lack a basis of comparison to see if there are any better alternatives one can find in other craft writing books out there. While I do not doubt the chapters regarding the essential revision of the manuscript itself are timeless, my suspicion is that the chapters dealing with the publishing process itself are now (or soon) outdated given the rapid corporate consolidation and media homogenization taking place in the majority of the English world's media publishers.
– David Goloumbia
Not actually a book proper, but an academic journal article (New Literary History) that I ended up liking so much that I printed it out and taped into the pages of a small moleskine journal just so I could keep it with my other books. An article of literary analysis on massively online multiplayer gaming, which recasts the entire purpose of ludology within the context of neoliberal and neoconservative capitalism. An article I honestly wish I could disagree with, but its argumentation so is solid that I cannot disprove it. If however, you should see out any other works done by this author, make absolutely sure you only engage with him within the realm of published works. I made the mistake of following him for a while on social media, in which I discovered he is quite insane. However pure his intentions, which I have no doubt they are, he's drunken several different kool-aids from several different cults, amazing only insofar as I thought at least half of those rigid ideologies would cancel eachother out.
– Steward Brand
Brand is a biologist and prominent environmentalist, one of the forerunners in the movement who actually petitioned NASA to publicly release the first photos of the Earth taken from outer space. He is probably the last person in the world qualified to write a book about architecture, but it was precisely for that reason that he took such an unusual approach to the subject matter that most practised architects otherwise ignored. The result was a wonderful study of "buildings throughout time", and defined the concept of "shearing layers" which has been applied (sometimes fruitlessly) to other fields like software engineering, seeking to free themselves from the shackles of ephemerality. (For those who cannot track the book down, a BBC Documentary based on the book was produced and Brand himself has been quite open about freely distributing it online.)
– Alberto Manguel
Mr. Manguel is true to his profession as a librarian, though the only problem with himself as a writer is that he has the bad habit of repeating the same things over and over again throughout his several works on bookkeeping. I keep the Library at Night and the City of Words on hand as exemplars of his work, but have not expanded into the rest of his bibliography too far due to continually retreading the same ground.
– Zhuge Liang, Liu Ji
Thomas Cleary translation. A small hardcover that extrapolates on Shun Zhu's manuscript. An odd honours student bloke I knew in my last year of high school carried his own copy of The Art of War in his uniform pocket almost always. His utter eccentricity led me to this copy, but I found it to be a bit too dated to contain any wisdom that wasn't beyond its own context.
– Jonathan Ball
For the longest time I harboured an attitude towards poetry that gave it a standard impossible to meet. It was taught to me, through a confluence of sources, the primary lens to understand poetry was the old Worhol-McLuhanism of “art is anything you can get away with.” Such an attitude relegated all forms of poetic expression into two discrete camps: the emotional diarrhea of an unstable writer begging for a help which will never arrive, or clever little frauds of language which could be played off as a joke. Thus to engage in poetry at all, in writing or reading, was moving around rocks on the barren surface of a tidally-locked moon. Either without light or completely exposed, pouring out one's whole soul in the vain hopes to win the passing acceptance of the uncaring and fatigued strangers of a reading public, or trying to use all the methods of science and engineering to effortlessly register a patent for the perfect knock-knock joke without actually having to write it. In my own poetry (back when I still thought poetry was a thing I should probably be doing) I eventually opted for the latter approach, thinking it might be the “more respectable” thing to do. Despite the underlying logic being sound, it turned out... the wrong choice, ultimately. Clever little frauds of language might still be clever, but they're no less frauds. A fertile soil plowed by the till of imposter syndrome; you didn't actually write that, you just got away with it.
This was made worse by the fashions of the time when I entered university, faced with the new incarnations of Le Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle and that monster flarf, where the impressiveness of any given poem was less in what it said and more about the wild machinations which enabled its writing. Christian Bök making book-length lipograms. Derek Beaulieu writing an entire novel using nothing but punctuation marks. Kasey Silem Mohammad writing letter-for-letter anagrams of Shakespearean sonnets. Kenneth Goldsmith teaching entire academic curricula about wasting time on the Internet. I won't leave Jonathan Safran Foer's literary swiss cheese out of the lineup either, even if I actually liked him. It was as if everyone wanted to be the next urinal in Marcel Duchamp's bathroom, and put on airs that was all anyone else could ever aspire as well. This judgmental group fetish had an almost gendered element to it. A kind of masculinity born of homeostatic stoicism, which suppresses true emotion and artistic inspiration in favour of sublimating oneself to an ineffable industrial-capitalist system, becoming one with the machine to prove manhood via routes of marketability and mass-appeal. Real boys don't cry, even in writing, and nobody is going to buy your book just so they could listen to you whine or complain about your personal gripes. I understood this much already when I got started on fiction writing, thinking it as some professional ethic of being a storyteller, in the same way old manners of objectivity used to apply for journalists. Yet when faced with the similar form this took in the field of poetry, something about it suddenly felt wrong, off. The one-ups-manship of poetry written on a purely technical level meant all one could do was write things for the ever-rising expectations of other people, yet never for oneself. When I wrote the originals of the Generative Variations in my first craft workshop, it was in attempting the point that B.P. Nichol's poetry was so shitty and unremarkable that I could teach a dumb computer to rewrite it perfectly, and if that could happen without the human touch then the Nichol originals were therefore worthless as true art. Imagine my shock when the high-fallutin' professor walked right past my intent, and actually loved the stupid things by their own words. Imagine my deeper despair when I made the original version of Signal Mosaic in order to clarify that point I felt increasingly strongly (and increasingly incensed) about, only to have it end up the only thing I ever published in a Canadian literary magazine. This was the audience for whom I had doomed myself to impress...
Were it not for Ball, I would've given up on poetry earlier. I should've, and eventually did, but in that moment his was the paragon case. He was the only one who stood out front of the tangled mess of expectations and, in my eyes, actually wrote poems that worked. Impressive and well-constructed poems that were, ultimately, saying something, about something, and doing so in an almost magical way. I've been a fan of his work for the longest time, nearly ten years now ever since my last year of high school, when I happened upon the first few selections of Clockfire in an ill-gotten edition of GRAIN. Clockfire spoke to me on an almost primordial level, which made it all the more difficult that nobody else heard of the guy. Ball would belatedly fit more neatly into the already-established categories of the vogue by means of his first book, but that allowed no real room for the captivating darkness at the heart of his subsequent writing. It cemented my nihilism on the subject that everyone was playing mere games with poetry. Why does poetry suck? Because roses are seldom read.
I fear in saying the honest truth of “well, it was okay, I guess” might be damning The National Gallery with faint praise. Yet it is a hard fact, and one shared with The Politics of Knives. A book of poems, or perhaps an anthology of chapbooks, not all necessarily about the same thing, each no more than a page long, with some good ones, some bad ones, some great, and the rest mediocre. A quick and brief read that doesn't really demand much investment, which could be both a good and bad thing. A perfectly normal book of poetry, so unremarkable that it almost reifies the original need to which Oulipo was the solution. In my mind, Clockfire would always be “a hard act to follow”, pardon the pun, but it's only fair. Given time, there would eventually be regression towards the mean.
... though there is something about The National Gallery which is almost tangential to the book itself. This is probably the first time I've noticed Ball at his most personal and intimate. There are many poems where he writes about writing, and a side subject of the later poems is about his interactions with his daughter. The autobiography gets wildly specific, to the point where it might have no real appeal towards an audience of others. “Once I couldn't get published in GRAIN / Then I published in every issue of GRAIN / Here lie the heads of the former editors I've slain.” On one page he might remain perfectly “in-character”, boasting himself as “the Poet Laureate of Hell”. Then he's suddenly your perfectly ordinary Dad, thinking Dad thoughts, Daddishly. The single self, in multitudes. It's a strange side of Ball's writing, and Ball's writing specifically, which has never really come up before. Had I seen it at any other point, I would've written it off as self-indulgent and not worth my time, but perhaps that's the problem. The strange dissonance made me keenly aware of the hypocrisy in my approach to the subject matter: that what I had identified as so distasteful and awful about poetry when I had to do it, was the very same thing that I still stubbornly expected of Ball.
Perhaps the truth of the matter is that real boys could cry as much as they damn well please, but not everyone is allowed the privilege of being a real boy. The genre of schmaltzy poetry existed for a reason, even if the hidden politics of publishing and mass-audiences has since complicated its making. That commodity fetishism eventually led to the mort de l'auteur which I had completely internalized in my own expectations, despite my principles demanding I shouldn't. In this book supposedly about the making of art, Ball opted to publish poems that by all accounts were against “the rules”. The unwritten rules which, when even partially written down, reveal a grand classist charade. Where does this leave me, with my hypocritical burden? Where does this leave Ball? Was the Poet Laureate of Hell enacting some necromantic sorcery to create the Undeath of the Author? Or is it a bit more simple and self-serving, to flaunt the rules which bind new authors and how they apply to him no longer?
– Harry G. Frankfurt
– Louis Cabri
Dr. Cabri was one of my writing teachers ages ago. I considered his style the absolute antithesis of everything I hoped to stand for, which is something you want in a critic more than you want in an editor, but I took it anyway. I thought his other two books were simply the usual kind of bad, with only one or two good poems and the rest are all boring. He's since evolved from that and his third book is amazingly, wonderfully, ecstatically, magnificently, fabulously, brilliantly, completely batshit insane. No really, this book is 100% crazy from cover to cover -- which is more than most books of poetry get. It's better in performance than in writing though, so maybe there'll be an audiobook of it on UbuWeb someday ages from now. However, there is a claim about this book that I cannot substantiate; there is one poem in Chapter 3 that makes fun of me directly. I can't prove it, but I know it. He's edited some of my work, after all, though perhaps nobody else will ever know that.
– Dmitriy Genzel, Jakob Uszkoreit, Franz Och
Not actually a book proper, but a scientific paper commissioned by Google that I printed out and taped into a small notebook. The original PDF is probably still out there, if you could find it. An unusual intersection between literary craft and computer science, it explored the capability of using Google's translation API and cloud computing cluster to translate prose into metered poetry. I viewed this as an interesting antidote to the rise in conceptual and FLARF poetry in English writing, whereby if essentially meaningless writing could be better made by computers rather than by hand, this paper looked towards a method for perfecting the process wholesale -- even if it never saw public release.
– Chris Rojek
Love from afar, it seems, was a highly refined construct as far back as the eleven hundreds. The main difference between today’s long-distance relationships, say, of people who engage online, and “distant love,” as it was formally called by the Troubadours – aside from the fabulous body of poetry the latter engendered – was the fact of romantic surrender. Theirs, however, was more absolute.
Legendary among the poets who engaged in “nicety of speech, courtesy in loving,” is the case of Jaufre Rudel of Blaya, who fell in love with the Countess of Tripoli, though he had never laid eyes on her, much less touched her. Much as we do in today’s dating sites, where references to this or that quality are made without proof, Jaufre Rudel had heard about the Countess’ beauty and grace virtually, through reports from pilgrims who stopped at Tripoli in Antioch. He composed many songs for her.
Such was his need to see her, that overcoming all limitations, Jaufre Rudel set to sea. On the way he fell terribly sick, so that everyone thought him dead. Even so, they succeeded in bringing him to Tripoli, where, upon seeing him, the Countess took him in her arms. He came briefly into consciousness, realized that it was his love, and after praising his Maker for having given the chance to see his lady, died in her arms.
- “Amor Lointain”, Beatriz Hausner, Enter the Raccoon.
I tracked down this book because I wanted to learn about “parasocial interactions” or “parasocial relationships”. Despite having a fairly large university library, and further despite parasociality being a known concept since the 01950’s in the least, this was the only book on the subject I could find in the academic catalogues. That should have been a clue that something about my interest in the topic was not entirely above board.
Parasociality was a concept introduced by Donald Horton and Richard Wohl in a 01956 paper published in the journal of Psychiatry, “Mass Communication and Para-Social Interaction”. Parasocial relationships are one-sided, where one person extends emotional energy, interest, and time – but the other party is completely unaware of the other’s existence, either by conscious choice or extenuating circumstance. For the longest time, it was theorized to only be common to mediated environments, such as television and radio broadcast. Viewers and listeners of the broadcast age would form illusory relationships with media celebrities and news personalities, despite said sociability being utterly impossible due to both geographic distance and the power relations of broadcast media, making such “relationships” entirely nonreciprocal. Horton and Wohl stressed that parasocial interactions were becoming so common following the previous ascendancy of radio broadcast and the rising growth of television, they were liable to be in active social competition with kith and kin. The power of celebrity could cancel out the effect and influence of one’s own family.
It was not the first time the question had been posed, but merely the first a possible answer was offered. Earlier in World War II, a popular radio singer was given a single afternoon to run a pledge drive for raising war bonds. While it was likely known that Kate Smith’s popularity would bolster the overall effect of the pledge drive, the final result of $39,000,000 in war bonds being amassed in only a few short hours seemed wildly out-of-place with expectation. (Thirty nine million in 01946 money would inflate to five hundred and thirteen million in 02019 value, roughly a half billion.) Even earlier than that, some Marxist scholars such as Theodor Adorno of the Frankfurt School, were reaching for similar explanations in trying to account for the behaviours of fascist demagogues as radio broadcasters. As they noted in their research of “the authoritarian personality”, such bully-pulpits could openly threaten the general public with violence and browbeat their own most devoted listeners using con-artistry and vague appeals to Christian faith, all while still maintaining not just the permissive tolerance but also the open acceptance of the radio listening public. In both cases, for good and ill, there had to have been some sociological factor to account for why.
Yet, as soon as it was properly introduced in the mid-fifties, nothing much happened. That paper would be the last thing the sociologist Wohl would publish before his death of cancer. From what little I could find, Horton’s academic career as a psychologist didn’t go much further, if I had to guess because of its conclusions being ever-so-slightly-out-of-line with the vogue of psychiatric behaviourism. While it may have been pushed and published as a psychological (as opposed to sociological) concept, there was no attempt within academic psychiatry to replicate the findings. Tainting matters was a level of kookiness and quackery, as the “para” prefix in “parasocial interaction” was the same usage as “parapsychology”, the oft-bunk study of extrasensory perceptions, telepathy, precognition, and clairvoyance. It likely didn’t help matters that the chosen abbreviation for parasocial interaction in the original paper was “PSI”. Interest in it was completely absent by theoretical psychology for nearly 40 years, until the social phenomenon of celebrity stalkings and developmental eating disorders in response to media representations of body image eventually forced the profession’s hand to bring it back into fore, hurriedly and as-was.
In that meantime, the only ones who found PSI truly useful were the advertisers and media corporations of the broadcast age, who wished to use the proposed methods of PSI measurement in market testing and public relations management. Nearly all of what I was able to find on PSI in the academic catalogue consisted of journal papers and commissioned studies measuring the likelihood of forming parasocial relations with given media images, branded products, or cartoon characters. Each came with their own flavour of management for the “PSI-scale” and more their own custom sampling conditions. If it could be measured, even with units of measurement I just made up, then surely it must be real; and if I paid good money for that information, then surely it must be even more real. Surely.
The more I looked into the matter, the more suspect the whole thing seemed. At best, it was only expressed at the extremes of psychonormative behaviour in hypermedia environments. At worst, it was just another tool to manufacture the consent of public opinion. The field was a raging forever-war between appeals for mental health and capitalist profit motive. In such a fight, the noble losers didn't have the option of surrender, and the vicious victors didn't have the option of satisfaction. At this point, Rojek comes along, and says we’ve been looking at it all wrong this whole time. Even when the onslaught of digital media should have demanded new and expanded research into PSI, Rojek claims that our framework to approaching parasocial relationships – even down to the label we’ve given it – prevents us from understanding its exact process. Rojek offers the dynamics of “presumed intimacy” as what should replace parasociability. ... or, perhaps more accurately, posits the existence of such a system. Despite following his logic fairly well, I’m not sure he’s quite able to provide the full picture of what presumed intimacy actually entails, but he can at least prove that it exists, and that it is superior to PSI as a framework for understanding social dynamics extended by mass media.
Consider the example I’ve provided from Hausner’s poetry. The clearest picture of celebrity culture and parasocial relationship if there ever was one, even if nearly 1000 years old! However, it only considers the affair from Jaufre Rudel’s viewpoint; the common man who has fallen in love with a faraway and unreachable celebrity of high society. This was the same perspective which approached the subject of parasociability writ-large during the age of broadcast media, all of us as hapless viewers enthralled to these mysterious, yet only partially existent personae. If we were to turn the process on its head, we must interrogate the Countess of Tripoli for her role in this story. Why was it necessary for her reputation to precede her? What compelled her to cradle this dying commoner whom she did not know and had no reason to acknowledge? While Jaufre Rudel’s actions make an almost logical sense, even if his brain should hang forlorn between his legs, the actions of the Countess seem disjointed and almost alien should her opinion even be attempted, much less imagined. Parasocial interactions only made sense because the exclusive and monopolistic nature of mass media meant that the role of the viewer was the objective truth for the overwhelming majority of the population. Even considering the alternative was not meaningful as a practical matter, since the total number of celebrities which that system of media could support at any one time was already several sample sizes too small. By the force of sheer numbers alone, celebrity culture was something that celebrities themselves had very little to do with, at least as far as PSI was concerned.
For better or worse, digital media shattered most aspects of monopoly that the corporate media nexus held over mediated society, democratizing at least some of the means of production to the larger population. Now the total number of people who find themselves on the receiving end of celebrity culture has swelled considerably, to the point where their views and expectations would reach a critical mass, even as a minority, and have effects on the wider social fabric. What once might have been the secret techniques of impression management deeply held by publicity companies for their rich patrons, are now things that all public persons are required to do in order to placate their audience – an audience they might not command, but find themselves rather constrained by. We all live in the ghostly presence of “statistical men and women”, a strange – if abstract – divinity, for whom we modify our behaviours to seek favour, and to whom we make almost prayer-like appeals. This constant and unflinching acknowledgement of the apparitional “statistical men and women” who always exist just out of earshot is one of the primary things for public persons to understand if they wish to maintain presumed intimacy with their audience; a mass of people to whom they are connected, yet cannot ever truly know the constitution of. Stand-up comedians can at least “read the room” to gauge if the group of people they are in front of will think one type of joke is funny or if another would offend, but media personae are offered no such affordances, the spotlights of their stage so bright as to cast the whole theatre into an unknowable darkness. Thus presumed intimacy may have a surface appearance of reverence towards human rights, and it most certainly does given how unprompted displays of bigotry is one of the most common ways to run afoul of it, but there is still enough flack in the system for it to be woefully abused by technocratic politicians or particularly deft cause célèbres. Presumed intimacy is a votive behaviour, and cannot be considered a genuine reflection of empathy or altruism towards the lesser off and misfortunate, but may have more to do with self-preservation and projecting an image of crediblity in the sight of others. The Countess of Tripoli did not console the dying man because she had reason to care for him, but instead to maintain the power and prestige of her “publicness” before those whom she held feudal office. Complicating matters more, public persons in the mediated sphere may be put under the constant expectation to endure a form of noblesse oblige, but the private persons who behold them are under no obligations to do the same. It is the interplay between these two groups which forms the basis of democratic society, and why Rojek ultimately calls presumed intimacy an exploitable “darkling sensibility” and a type of artful social interaction.
Rojek is ultimately a cynic about presumed intimacy, and for good reason, given his subject of expertise in celebrity culture. The strategic deployment and management of presumed intimacy is what celebrities have always done, dating back to well before the mass media, so the entire field reeks of nefarious manipulation and the cold calculations of power. Each celebrity’s “para-confessional” deliberately formulated and executed, so that even the most spontaneous outburst of pure humanness would always be a factor in a publicist’s calculus. Rojek insists presumed intimacy cannot be separated from the core functions of neoliberalism, as presumed intimacy is most exemplified by the empty paternalism of centrist American presidents and Canadian prime ministers. Once television broadcast became the primary medium to represent the public sphere of Western nations, politicians adopted the mannerisms and presentation of celebrity actors to bolster their effectiveness for winning Democracy’s numerous popularity contests, engendering entire industries of publicity management and media manipulation to support that need. While this may have been the core method of business for the television age, the question of its ultimate effectiveness turns to what it enables for the leadership of these nations, and that outlook thus far is grim. Despite the diffusion of tools made available for recording history, very little History has been made. Appearing “authentic” and “genuine” on televised appearances might be quite important for these very-serious prettyboys, but it has only enabled them to relinquish their power as leadership of a nation in favour of becoming multi-purpose media spokespersons. Should something happen to negatively affect a large portion of the population, perhaps something put into motion by the elite or upper class for purely selfish reasons, presumed intimacy allows for the perfect response from authority: acknowledge problem, sympathize endearingly, then continue to do nothing about it. This strategy could be repeated indefinitely, and has. In the final chapter of the book Rojek changes channels, foregoing a direct conclusion to instead give a scathing sermon about neoliberal capitalism and the importance of abolishing it. I appreciated that, as I am wont to do, but I felt it didn’t really have much to do with the topic at hand. (Thanks? I guess?) Had I read this book at almost any other time in my life, I likely would’ve agreed with him on all points. Yet, I left this book on a strangely hopeful note, and I’m not sure I was supposed to. I am more optimistic than Rojek, or perhaps just naïve, to see a silver lining in what presumed intimacy is and what it might end up becoming.
I know Rojek would disagree with me, and I know this because he most certainly has read the same sources I have, but I see presumed intimacy as something that could be repaired and used for better purposes. As I read it, I wasn’t sure what my ultimate reaction to the book was going to be. My thoughts only began to crystallize into something approximating clarity when I thought back to The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, or at least what little of that incredibly difficult book I was able to understand. Habermas’ core contention about the broadcast media of his day was it represented a regression of public participation, even from the already exclusionary standards of the bourgeoise, back into something approximating a technologically-buttressed form of courtly-noble society. The meticulously planned spectacles and productions within TV studios by the rich capitalists and their glamorous celebrities carried the same function of the grand fêtes at the court of Palace Versailles, where the prince-nobles fretted over the entertainment of their guests in an effort of propaganda to affirm their divine right of kings. (Efforts, while always undertaken, ended with the guillotine.) Yet just because these tiny, proto-publics were not open to all in a democratic manner did not mean that its members were completely enthralled to their autocratic masters. They were bound by custom and etiquette, perhaps most explicitly by the historical example of Baldassare Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano. The book of the courtier did not guarantee success at court, but merely the necessities of survival within it; just as at the Chinese Imperial Court kētóu was the manner and custom which court assumed, but did not by itself imply one had to completely “kowtow” to the heavenly emperor himself. This antique form of presumed intimacy was practised by power-players of old, and was emulated by the citizens of the soon-expanding bourgeois public sphere in the “cultured personalities” of the “public person”, even as they moved towards Democracy. But again, culturing one’s personality was not a blueprint to success within the public sphere, nor even a limit on behaviour. (Habermas’ claim of there being a “golden age of rationality” in the bourgeois public sphere is by now well-known to have never happened; the public sphere was a corrupt institution from the very moment of its birth.) It was just the absolute minimum one could do as a bourgeois public person – any other enterprise to be undertaken in the public sphere would’ve required something else, something more. So long as we recognize that, it might be possible to account for both the strengths and weaknesses of the presumed intimacies we follow today.
Public spheres were rare throughout history, but now we at least have the technological means to regain one. Before the turn of the millennium, there existed none alive who had memory of what it was like to carry oneself within a public life which was – in theory, at least – available to all. What social skills would doing so actually require of one person? What responsibilities would we have to collectively maintain the public sphere? We don’t know, and there isn’t anyone who could authoritatively tell us. Worse yet, many of our old ideas about life as lived in the press, such as the refuge of scoundrels that often is “freedom of speech” or the eternally raging slapfights of “the marketplace of ideas”, have turned out quite counterproductive and downright stressful when they shifted from being the only-imagined ideals of liberality into to something we actually have to construct our lives within. So many of the issues and dramas which I keep seeing sparked on message boards and social media all seem to have some connection to the mysterious disconnect between us simultaneously living as both public and private persons. I see in the idea of presumed intimacy a kind of hint to a workable solution. For as condescending and abusive as presumed intimacy might be, and for as empty as its surface-only appeals to human rights definitely are, I’ve only seen bad things happen when people operate without it. I can’t deny its effectiveness, having been the de facto method of public presentation for so long already, and maybe soon the de jure. Rojek theorizes, possibly incorrectly but hopefully not, that the form of presumed intimacy he studies first developed along Durkheimean lines. Émile Durkheim first posited the division of labour in industrial society due to the dynamic density which took place during urbanization. When large populations moved into smaller geographic areas, they reconfigured their understanding of the social world, enabling the formation of new and more complex types of social relationships. This is what would allow for the otherwise unnatural parasocial interactions and presumed intimacies. But Durkheim says that increased dynamic density can lead to something else too: moral density. A kind of organic solidarity, understood as a humanistic civic belief system, where respect for personal dignity and material well-being are collectively shared throughout society. Sure enough, the ideology of human rights formalized no less than 50 years after Durkheim theorized it, even if embryonic in form. This means that regardless if presumed intimacy is primarily used as a function of power, it is still linked to the application of human rights and judged by its criteria. ... superficially, of course, as Rojek makes great pains to point out, but even a superficial link is still material. Because of this, I think there is still some hope to be seen. If we understand what presumed intimacy is, specifically what it is and also what it is not, then perhaps it could become the new Cortegiano for the new age. It can be that bare minimum it takes to live convivially with an ever-increasing public sphere, so long as we know it is just that, and only that. If we understand this, then that enables us to begin moving beyond it, and to challenge the powerholders who would deflect their responsibilities. Presumed intimacy is not a path to success. It is not some simple steps to achieve social popularity. It is not an alternative to actually doing concrete things to respect and uphold human rights in the world, nor is it an alternative to praxis and collective action. And it is not the thing you do in order to get away with shit, 'cause you were gonna do that anyway. It is just a means to live in a world of statistical men and women, and that’s all.
– Beatriz Colomina
A terse and academic book on interpreting the changes in style between the early and later figures in the Bauhaus movement in regards to the rise of early mass media. Focuses primarily on the figures of Adolf Loos and Le Corbusier, the diametric opposites of the early modernist style. Somewhat useless on its own, but could be combined with other books to form some interesting connections -- enough to make a killer university essay, at least.
– Scott McCloud
One of the early texts of literary criticism aimed at the graphic novel, unique in its analysis as taking the history and nature of the comics industry itself into the form of the comic. Its suggestions towards the whims and cycles of any artistic industry are wide ranging beyond just comics, with a ghastly and morose depiction of industry itself as an oroboros dollar sign, ageing and decrepit, starving to the point where it will do nothing more than eat its own tail.
– Katie Salen, Eric Zimmerman
Probably the closest thing to a realization of the ludological field. A terse and academic tome hundreds of pages in length, dedicated to the higher concepts in game design from multiple different angles, and almost obsessively researched. However, it seems to favour board game and card game design over video games, and also favours multiplayer games over single. If this due to the bias of the authors themselves, the slowed inertia of the research bias, or just simply innate to the practice of ludology, I cannot tell, though I hope it will be amended in future editions, even if I lack the courage to embark on reading it once more.
– Jack M. Bickham
One of the first craft writing books I ever found, back in my high school's library. Part of a long series of craft writing books that I have been unable to locate the totality of. I remember liking this one for the time, but it must've been so long ago since I last read it that I honestly couldn't tell you if it was still up to standards. I've heard a common complaint lodged against this book that it essentially comes down to teaching the form of the "plot boiler", and if what I vaguely remember of Bickham's technique is correct, that would definitely be a risk one takes when following his guidelines.
– Robert McKee
If there was ever any one source that cemented my belief in screenwriting as an overall heretical style of script, it would be this one. Praised as "the screenwriter's bible" and assignment to me as part of a screenwriting fundamentals course in university, it is a book that has surprisingly little to actually do with screenwriting in particular. Given how specialized the form of the screenplay is, how strict the formatting is, how many common mistakes are endemic to first time scripts, how high the standard is for finely-formed style, how loose those standards become to those accepted into the elitist club, and how utterly different the content matter must be in order to account for the hypervisual action basis of the screen... to call this book the screenwriter's bible is when it has little to actually say about screenwriting in particular is simply a false statement -- almost criminally so, given its propensity to mislead! I suppose it could be considered a one-stop-shopping location to cover all the areas of traditional dramaturgy, but doing so can deny the breadth the multiplicity of opinion gives from going over a wide array craft texts, and anyone looking for craft writing for the style of the screenplay specifically absolutely must look elsewhere by necessity alone.
– Martin Esslin
An old dusty paperback I was able to find in an independent bookstore where the cashier clearly smoked way too much. While reading a bit of the context in which the plays were first made was interesting, I honestly just like reading the plays a bit more.
– Ralph Koster
An early book on basic ludology. Koster posits a theory that fun is inextricably linked to nuance and the process of learning. While his theory has some basis, with some very true implications, it is ultimately too subjective to look at as anything other than a theory. Possibly the one take-away from the book is that good games will cease to the fun eventually and that existence and abundance of fun levels is part of the natural life cycle of any game. Some critics, however, from within the industry, note that given the prominently unfun nature of the games Koster had a hand in producing, this book is ultimately more of a realization of ideas that various forces might have prevented Koster from actually implementing -- or so we can hope.
– Whitney Phillips
It wasn't the book I was expecting, but retrospectively, I didn't know what to expect. Phillips is like an alternate-universe Artemesia: a doctoral thesis studied and written as an ethnography of people within a virtual, online space – only instead of a happy and inclusive group of very smart and sensitive people on a semi-mystical journey to restore their fallen homeland, it's now 4chan and Anonymous trying to burn the whole damn world to the ground. So alike, yet so far apart.
The book was only published earlier in 02015 and is already dated – too early for mention of GamerGate or the rise of the political “Alt-Right,” which would've helped to further delineate the political split between Big-A and Litte-A Anonymous described later in the book. (Even though that was clearly never for the lulz.) I would define what she lists here as the definitive history of early trolling from 02003 to 02014, but the book is not really so much about trolling itself as exploring the conditions for how trolling becomes possible.
If I were at her PhD defence, the only criticism I could lob is that she assumes the power of “mainstream” media to be self-evident, but that alone may be an unquestioned assumption that proves difficult to back up. When Fox News is your only stable and reliable example of how the dynamic completes, is that not something of a straw man? I may understand what is meant by the “corporate media,” but for how much longer? If there is ever failure of commercial advertising to provide broadcast media with a funding model, and mass audiences break down into smaller sets, at what point does reliance on the larger system of “the media” fail to hold? How would the dynamics of trolling change? Would it cease to be as acerbic as a cultural scavenger, or would it become wholly political in nature?
– Stephen Minot
A textbook which seems to have gone through multiple revisions and reorganizations. (Mine seems to be the eighth edition.) Very dry and only really goes over the broad strokes of craft writing. A few good gems of information -- such as a very rare, actually proper explanation of diction -- but nothing I haven't seen before. Poetry section was a little boring and old fashioned.
Not actually a book proper, but a tutorial PDF that I printed out and taped into a spare journal. Was my first source on typography, though Robert Bringhurst would later replace it in much greater detail. On its own, it tended to oversimplify the art. Probably still freely floating about, somewhere on the net. The poor man's equivalent to Bringhurst's Elements of Typographic Style, but at a slightly different sort of price.
– Scott McCloud
One of the early texts of literary criticism specializing purely in the graphic novel form. His theory support towards it is astute and covers a very wide area, including an explanation on the nature and semiology of cartoonistry. I believed for quite a while that the first member of my family who ever wrote a master's thesis used McCloud prominently as a supporting source in her explorations of drama in education, but I mistaken; it was actually Art Spiegelman.
– Jonathan Ball, Ryan Fitzpatrick
A point well proven.
– Richard Lewontin
A text print of an early CBC Massey lecture on the ideological consequences of the scientific form. Somewhat useless on its own, if it were not for its place in a long 24 hour audio discussion called "How to Think About Science" by radio producer David Cayley, whose entire folio of work is difficult to find, but has much to be admired. Lewontin is probably the one of the many different scientists that was the easiest to follow along with, leading me to brave the book it was based on.
– Melissa Aronczyk, Devon Powers
An academic cultural studies anthology on branding and its miscreants. I first sought out this book seeking other recourse from Naomi Klein's No Logo, hoping to seek out a more grounded basis for the study and criticism of branding. Sadly, however interesting it was, I ended up leaving with more questions than answers.
Given the wide berth that corporate branding now covers, it's to hard tell exactly what and where it is effects can be seen. This anthology covers a lot of ground, and despite its highly critical lens, it is difficult to say what this terse volume wishes to talk about exactly. Is it corporate power? Is it consumerist socialization? Is it the reach of the public relations industry? It is difficult to know exactly what and where the crux of the matter lies, and this very terse and didactic volume doesn't pinpoint anything specifically.
– Adam Arvidsson
Probably the best cultural studies book I've been able to find on the practice of branding specifically, though that might be damning with faint praise. It's an advanced, but not terribly long volume that was very difficult to finally track down, and probably not freely available to anyone outside of an academic library.
While following Arvidsson's long and winding argumentation was difficult at times, the one takeaway that this book offers that most other books on marketing and branding do not, is an exact economic analysis of the value branding itself generates, especially in the realm of economic intangibles where any company powerful enough can simply add a few zeroes to their asset pool by virtue of having won some arbitrarily defined popularity contest. The skeptic in me wonders if it isn't a sign of fraud to generate such something from nothing.
I believe this was the last book on the subject I devoured before giving up on the whole deal. The weird frenzy that No Logo had inspired in me eventually subsided. This was, what I thought was, the best book on branding that I could find; yet even it didn't have the answer to whatever it was I hoped to find. It was the grand and triumphant terminus of a hard-fought line of inquiry, yet still no less a dead end.
– David Croteau, William Hoynes
A small textbook on media homogenization and corporate consolidation, as well as doubling as a basic textbook in political economy. (But only very basic.)
This textbook was pretty important to me at the very formative time I had read it. That said, I wonder if it would only end up being an interesting cultural artifact of a very specific time. Clearly written in the wake of the Telecommunications Act of 01996, it theorizes the nature of multiple dueling media systems within the larger context of monopoly capitalism. It is very specific in its subject matter, but on its own is not sufficient towards understanding some of the key concepts which underwrite it.
Sadly, it was written in 02006 and most of its subject focuses on the old systems of broadcast media, without much thought or consideration towards the rapid changes digital media would introduce to the underlying economics of the erstwhile "mass" media. Yet, while it desperately tried to offer much-needed alternatives that I adored at the time, it's been scarcely 15 years later and things have already changed so much. I haven't had the chance to revisit the book in full, but my fear is that many of its assumptions about the future have since been turned on their heads. ... and not just in the sense of "they were wrong", but more in the sense of "they were right, but they'd wish they weren't," and things they once saw as causes for hope would later turn out to be quite the opposite.
– Clifford A. Pickover
As many years as it has been since I last set foot inside a school, my burning hatred towards the teaching of advanced mathematics has yet to calm within my soul. Because I was bullied into computer science as a career path, highschool to undergrad had turned my life into a Sisyphean hell. I was forced to endure classes in advanced mathematics – calculus especially – multiple times, despite the protestations from both myself and other compsci students that the subject matter had very little relevance to our actual work. The experience had left me a very dire impression of the whole sociological process. The education system might make the lofty claim of their intent to produce critical-thinking mathematicians, yet the core practice only seems to reward timid and docile arithmeticians. (A sutble distinction which makes a world of difference.) The goal was never about the journey of learning, but instead the production of compliance to the selfish needs of your capitalist betters. The whole thing meant not to judge you on your ability to understand difficult material and its latent innovations, but instead on your unthinking means to robotically solve mindnumbing amounts of useless little logic puzzles.
Books such as these prey upon those trapped at the margins of the cruel process. They offer a glimmer of hope to those inundated with mountains of homework and not an ounce of "correctness" to show for it. The core concepts are simple; strikingly so. It can deftly explain to you the whole shebang on differentials and integrals with nothing more than overwrought metaphors about Italian cuisine. Yet it is illusory, because it misunderstands (or misrepresents) underlying intentions which claim to employ it. Mere understanding is never enough, and it certainly won't save you from the harsh judgments of error which the human hand will inevitably produce. Pouring over false messiahs such as these will not save you from vacations lost to summer school, scholarships withdrawn from tanked GPAs, tuition money robbed over retaken classes, and the haunting spectre of an uncaring bureaucracy holding your future over your head.
Even now, this book stands on my shelf as if it were the mocking tombstone to a shallow grave which once nearly claimed me.
– Robert Epstein
On June 16th, 02019, Robert Epstein stood before the United States Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution. His expert testimony was on the topic of “Big Tech” interfering in the proceedings of the previous American federal election. His claim was that Google abused its position as the foremost national search provider to enact surveillance and censorship, biasing the search results with aims to manipulate the outcome of the election. Epstein backed up this claim with a white paper of quantitative data on the monitored search results of 95 experimental subjects. This attracted the interest of many conservative lawmakers and commentators, ever happy to feed the over-baked controversy du jour and continue the public display of their persecution complex about being “unfairly censored” by nefarious liberals. While always a right-wing tactic of working the refs, the topical interest reached a high pitch after major social media platforms belatedly enacted measures on banning conspiracy theorists and provocateurs trying to incite harassment and violence. This eventually percolated upwards through cable-news outlets, winning the affections of an unfortunate senile buffoon, and ever-momentary national attention along with it.
There was just one problem: the white paper was a fraud. Or if not, then something close to it. “In his submitted testimony, Epstein did provide seven pages of citations—but all of them are papers or op-eds he wrote or co-wrote himself. Only one of them—a 2015 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, about how biased results produced by search engines could have the ability to sway undecided voters—was peer-reviewed. Even that study didn’t demonstrate that this has actually happened.” (A. Glaser, August 20th 02019, slate.com)
Epstein presented himself to the Senate Judiciary as a senior research psychologist from the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology. It certainly sounds impressive, but in an all-too-common trick of public relations, the AIBRT might as well not exist. As the Ivy Lees and Edward Bernayses had done in times of mass media immemorial, a small business wearing academic frock could pass off heavily-biased scientific data directly to news publications and government agencies, without the chance of peer-review or actual universities to issue objection or censure. The organization only ever had one proper staff member: Robert Epstein himself. Its website prominently featured requests for donations to fund its research on issues of psychology and artificial intelligence, “research” which only ever seemed to have one slanderous target in mind: Google.
Epstein’s beef against Google started in either 02011 or 02012. After being compromised by hackers, Epstein’s website was overidden by embedded malware, making most major search engines and even smaller browser providers like Mozilla block access to his site on cybersecurity protocols. I remember, being once a fan of his, seeing the security warnings for myself. Epstein responded by calling for a lawyer and sending numerous abusive emails to Google employees, carbon copied to chief executive Larry Page, demanding the security warnings be removed on grounds of libel. “Your company is continuing – initially through incompetence and now through negligence and malice – to do irreparable harm to my good name and reputation.” Google responded to him, carbon copying the New York Times journalist developing the story, telling him that they had re-scanned his site, only to find it was still infected.
Between the publication of this book and the sudden reveal of his fraudulent activities ten years later, Epstein led an unassuming career as a pop psychologist and cable-news regular. He even gained a penchant for publishing op-eds in conservative newspapers, ranging from the usual fare of plausibly-deniable white supremacist propaganda, to even writing for the mouthpiece of an apocalyptic cult expelled directly from China due to equally bizarre anti-communist activities. This is most certainly an unusual set of hobbies for someone who still wears the câchet of his former position as editor-in-chief of the assuredly nonpartisan Psychology Today. It’s all the more eccentric considering the numerous times, in both his Senate testimony and other writings, he identifies himself as a fervent supporter of the Democratic party — but by this point that's neither here nor there. Because of the duly political flavour of this more recent scandal, not many people remember him for the seemingly apolitical Case Against Adolescence. It begs the necessary question: was there ever a time when he wasn’t a fraud? Was this book, too, just another feint?
It beggars belief that someone who could seem so much the image of an intelligent and well-researched scholar could ever go on to commit acts of both deceptive malice and ego-driven stupidity. I wondered if the argument that I remembered so fondly reading was ever truly his own in the first place. After opening this book up again for the first time in eight years, I rushed to the 77 pages of notes and citations, a milquetoast mix of scientific journal articles and boring encyclopedia entries; no easily-identifiable opinion pieces in sight. I would’ve thought that alone might have been a comforting thought, yet for some ineffable reason, it wasn’t. It beggared belief that he could seem so much the image of a critical scholar, and that image was – itself – the problem.
I read this book at a very vulnerable time in my life. I had just graduated high school on fairly bad terms from having to repeat an entire grade level simply due to bureaucratic error – an error so common it affected 25% of my entire graduating class, no matter how good their grades could have been. This retrospect compounded further when I finally reached the much-vaunted university position, only to discover everything I was told about post-secondary was part of a deliberate misinformation campaign meant to control crowd behaviour, carried out by my old school board with the tacit permission of our own parents. I was mortified by this discovery, that I had been the victim of a terrible and systematic abuse of power. At the time, I had not even the means to communicate what exactly the problem was beyond a vague feeling of disgust, let alone what it truly meant or what could’ve been done about it. This book, one that I happened upon by mere accident of being in the right place at the right time, was necessary to clear away the dark clouds in my mind. It is especially wounding this book and its author now sit in such disrepute.
The core thesis of The Case Against Adolescence is about the historical creation of “adolescence” as a demographic age group and how it leads to “the artificial extension of childhood”. This entrapment can be directly correlated to the sturm und drang that is associated with the common trope of teen angst. It persists throughout culture instead of being addressed as a mass-societal source of mental illness because of a cold calculation. As compulsory schooling grew more commonplace, the early school systems from the 01860's till 01920's sought efficiencies in methods to offset their increasing size, finding an entrenching solution in the industrially-inspired “assembly line” form of education. Profit motive also came around in new types of cultural industries geared towards serving teenagers as a captive market. Past administrations, under the preferences of easy management, chose to normalize teen angst into a “regular part of growing up”.
As best as I can tell, the majority of his claims on both the historical development and scientific consensus of adolescence are still correct or remain close enough. Since reading it for the first time, I haven’t seen anything in this book that I couldn’t also find elsewhere in other sources, even when neutrally inclined. Adolescence, as a social phenomena, is a social construct and exists only in industrialized or developed countries. The question, then, becomes what Epstein’s true angle in the topic really was. He seems to inspire the same kind of solipsism that most young students have when trying to handle postmodernist concepts for the first time: thing is socially constructed, ergo, thing is not real; thing is not real, ergo, thing does not exist. Teenagers are faced with higher rates of depression, suicide, and impetus towards crime precisely because of social pressures which consign them to the socially-constructed prison that is adolescence. Epstein’s reaction to this is to take a stance not unlike prison abolition, to render the whole concept null and void. Teenagers should then no longer be considered as teenagers, but instead as adults, with all the rights and responsibilities that would grant and require.
Of course, one has to pay close attention to the argument in play to realize the bait-and-switch that just happened. In response to one source of problems, Epstein offers in solution another source of problems. Even when I was younger, I could tell in reading this book that Epstein’s own ideological bent towards conservatism would cloud his judgment and get in the way of offering true solutions. It wasn’t just in how the choice of topic allowed him what was possibly the only rhetorically acceptable way of ribbing on old ancient nemeses like feminism and working class solidarity, how their solutions of the past would have these specific effects in the far-flung future. (Epstein, weirdly, would be much more straightforward about this than his senior.) What tipped off my younger self about it was how Epstein just couldn’t help himself. Even when giving grand and overly-optimistic paeans of the limitless potential young people had, he would still find time to work in an all-too-common “back in my day” rant. Not even a matter of partisan politics, my younger self was able to see the imperfections latent in Epstein simply because his nostalgic indulgences could prompt the reaction of “shut up, old man.” Furthermore, while it was cogent to his core thesis on the historical development of adolescence, having an entire chapter dedicated to the question “What Does the Bible Say?” might have been a little too suspect. Perhaps more tellingly, when one looks up this book elsewhere on the internet, oft-quoted is the unfortunate – though small – section from the muddy middle of the book about the benefits and virtues of corporal punishment in child-rearing. That alone would be an immediate disqualifier for most.
Given this book’s proximity to disinformation campaigns and the sudden reappearance of fascism on the world stage, I can no longer afford to let conservatism pass as a harmless quirk of character. Conservatives are animals of hierarchy, and they wouldn’t entertain something so risky to the status quo unless the right type of people stood to profit. I would argue the main issue with The Case is less in what Epstein says and more in what he does not. One is the problem of “warehousing” the young in high schools, and how its only real purpose is in providing large corporations with a steady-supply of an easily controlled minimum-wage underclass of part-time workers. This was so common a complaint about high schools that nearly all of the university freshmen I talked to about this book would bring it up – yet for as obvious of an argument as it is, it scarcely deserves mention in Epstein’s book, despite similar excoriations about “cultural industries” so alike. It is an interesting historical note this book was written before the 02008 recession. While there was yet to be any public consciousness of the eventual student debt crisis which would grip most of North America, the relevant topics of post-secondary tuition (which is necessary to get certification in order to even enter the job market) and student loans (which are necessary to finance it) are not broached despite their extreme relevance to the thesis. There is also no mention about power relations, and how the suddenly-adulted erstwhile teens would manage against others who would gain economic and social advantages over them through the simple route of having been there first. It might very well be the case that the assembly line style of education stunts peoples' ability to develop social skills keen to large groups by keeping kids limited to others within their same age. I even have seen the out-of-school effects of that when online communities with narrow ranges of age between the youngest and oldest members would develop problems more rapidly than similar communities when wider. ... but this doesn’t imply simply increasing a subject’s access to a wider variety of age groups will inspire some sort of enlightenment through diversity, not on its own, and especially when there are other things at stake. For every increase in access teenagers would gain to another age group, the reverse will also apply, and other age groups would gain increased access to teenagers.
That is, perhaps, the exact rub that lies in The Case Against Adolescence. The primary beneficiaries from the abolition of adolescence would not be the former teenagers, suddenly free of all the unfair limitations to their freedoms, but instead those who would seek to control and profit from them in that state. Many young people I know may have read this book to confirm our suspicions of ageist discrimination within an industrial education system, yet we were never Epstein’s intended audience. That much was obvious ever since the publication of this book’s second edition, re-titled to Teen 2.0: Saving Our Children and Families from the Torment of Adolescence. Notice the ever-so-slight change in vantage, selling its point not to teenagers who are the ones who supposedly could handle it themselves according to the book’s own logic, but instead to the parents of said teenagers. Why would this be the case? From my perspective, the usual motives of a pop psychologist looking to gull the vulnerable self-help market could be discounted, even if that choice would mean he could only fleece the sheep who had wool to spare. The key word in this instance is “our”, the implication of ownership and possession. By living in the strange mix of both childhood and adulthood, Epstein wants teenagers to truly gain the properties of both; all the capabilities towards economically productive work with the temperament and legal status of chattel. Like many of his ideological ilk, Epstein sought to democratize expressions of power away from the impartial hand of the State and back to the pater familias of the capitalist marketplace, enabling the worst tendencies in the petty tyrants of the world. Teenagers are smart. Teenagers have all sorts of hidden capabilities that our school systems don’t value. ... and for the low, low price of governmental deregulation under the mantra of “youth rights”, all of it may be yours.
There was an agenda behind this book. This book was meant to be the intellectual gloss for some type of political purpose, one that may not have been honest about its true motives. With one hand it would promise a new type of emancipation, yet kept the other hand with a knife at the ready. That agenda stood as the reason The Case was never formally adopted into any truly principled movement of youth empowerment. Yet that same agenda, whatever it possibly could have been, never materialized to act on itself. With those things gone, all that’s left is the text itself, standing entirely by its lonesome. Yet the problems stemming from the poor design and corrosive psychology of the industrial compulsory schooling system remain apparent, so much so that I was desperate enough to rely on a snake like Epstein to back up an unmarked claim. Could anything be salvaged from this book? Should anything? The social construction of adolescence is shoddy and in dire need of repair, yet because of the revolving door of adolescence’s eventual point of exit, those problems are never truly solved and simply aged out. All that remains is the cold comfort that it will eventually just be someone else’s problem. ... but it was wrong when it happened to us, and it will remain wrong when it happens to others.
– Joseph Turow
A book about the history and development of online advertising, based from its early roots in 01960's advertising and how advertising broke into and changed the early internet, morphing it into the Internet of the early-to-late 02000's and 02010's, morphing from the old cost-per-view model toward the mindless harvesting of personal information. It should be more distressing that after a good 30 years of public internet, we still don't know how to make money on the Internet any other way than plastering advertisements on everything; practice that is very destructive at its worst, and somewhat misled at its best.
– Ivan Illich
Yet another book whose hypothesis I so desperately want to agree with, if only it weren't for the obvious flaws. This book continues that sorry tradition in my library from Epstein's The Case Against Adolescence, even though it is several decades its senior. The primary flaw of Illich here is that he is naught but a free marketeer, demanding that all forms of government in society be broken down into market forces, whatever the consequences may be. Those who are more familiar with Illich and the rest of his work might balk at the suggestion – he is, after all, so much more than that – but for his first book published in 01970 during the lull of the Cold War, anti-communism is what he decided to couch his argument within. Unironic mention of Milton Freedman during the first chapter might have been perfectly fashionable for the time, but knowing the dark history of what came next with deregulatory neoliberalism, I cannot help but see in this book the seeds of some ideas that eventually swelled into something monstrous.
This frustrates me, because what he has to say clearly has merit. His points on the phenomenology of school and the ritualization of progress are shining gems in what might be a sea of nonsense, all slapped together using several mutually-exclusive ideas from both right-wing and left-wing realms of thought. He is an individualist. He clearly wants to believe in each person's own capacities to do what is best for themselves, without the need to impose an institutional monopoly upon it. (Because without social embedding, the institution will forget who it is meant to serve, and will begin making decisions that will only meet the institution's ends alone.) He wants learning to become a purely personal activity. I can see where he's coming from, but I'm still unsure. I too wish there could be a thing known as “education” without the need for “school,” but the more I ponder it the more I fear that might just be an appeal to some higher authority which simply doesn't exist.
– Donald A. Norman
The forerunning textbook in humanistic industrial design, key for its central concept of environmental affordances. Has gained traction in multiple fields, if only because I'm led to believe the otherwise over-hyped and exclusive industrial design field to be too narrow to contain Norman's theory.
– M. Morris Mano, Michael D. Ciletti
I must've poured over this a few times, but due to its large scope one can never really say they know the whole of it. Covers all topics in basic computer engineering: binary representation, boolean algebra, logic gates, logic circuit diagramming, eventually easing its way into the whole of the Von Neumann architecture. Sadly, it is mostly theoretical, and given the high amount of foundational technology it assumes, is probably not sufficient to build your own programmable computer from scratch, especially without any foreknowledge in embedded programming and electronics manufacturing. Probably still good enough for making basic logic circuits on a breadboard using gate chips, but I haven't done that since high school and somewhat wonder if this textbook might be a bit advanced for that level.
– Lisa Stampinsky
When I first wanted to try reading up on terrorism, this was the book that stirred my attention. For a while it was limited by the only publisher being in the United Kingdom, making an import to Canada cost a hefty penny. (I eventually got lucky and managed to get it for a more reasonable price, but until then there were other books that were less than satisfactory.) This book takes an unusual route to studying terrorism, and is likely the first of its kind: a terrorism meta-study. It studies those who claim to study terrorism and how the field of "terrorism studies" came about, similar to what happens when the methods of science are applied back onto science itself.
What we regard as terrorism has undergone several shifts in understanding. Originally, it was a tactic used by rational actors in war. Insurgency theory, as it was known, held remarkable explanatory powers. There was never any question what insurgents who committed acts of terror were wont to achieve, since insurgency theory put motivations at the fore of its analysis. Sadly, no matter how much it understood the problems of which terrorism was a symptom, it did not have the ability to solve any of them. With the Vietnam War considered a failure, the US Military cut ties with the academic institutions which supplied insurgency theory who they partly blamed for the loss, and turned to the private sector for new research. Through this, "terrorism" was the new name which replaced insurgency as a body of knowledge; it holds absolutely no explanatory effects, but as a tool of politics and state power it reigns king. Now, terrorism is not a tactic, but an identity usually given to political opponents or designated Others, justifying pre-emptive action for whatever imaginary crimes they have yet to commit.
There were flavours of reading Chomsky and Herman again about how objective measurements are not applied when media propaganda has to differentiate between political friend and foe, but Stampinsky takes a more nuanced stance. Under Chomsky and Herman, media systems are pawns manipulated by a mastermind of state power, in a tone that would almost be conspiratorial if it weren't for their rigorous documentation. For Stampinsky's view, media systems are very simple machines that operate automatically, and as such: garbage goes in, garbage comes out. This shifts the locus onto the masterminds themselves, who are rarely -- if ever -- masterful and with even less of a mind. It would almost be comical if it weren't so tragic how neoconservatives in the 01980's became so utterly convinced the Soviet Union was sponsoring "terror networks" all over the world (at a time in which the Soviet Union was actually crumbling under its own weight and probably couldn't even sponsor a soccer tournament) would later come back after 9/11 and apply the same fallacious theories without any criticism or accountability, simply because they swapped communists out for jihadists.
Where I think Stampinsky probably didn't spend enough attention, perhaps because it was outside of the scope of her historiography, is in the chapters about anti-knowledge; wherein terrorism experts themselves became persona-non-grata simply because they knew too much about the terrorists they studied, in a time of right-wing ascendancy where understanding the enemy was equated with sympathy thereof. I think the politics of anti-knowledge is still at play, and it comes with very grave systemic risk. If the barriers of basic human empathy for others are removed from active conflicts, they can only intensify even further.
– Chris Hedges
Hedges is an old pastor and writer of the New Left from the 01960's, with a very definite Presbyterian bent. Earlier on, I bought his other book on the rise of religious fundamentalism in the United States as a gift for a good friend who almost revelled in his own joyful atheism. I quite liked reading American Fascists in the brief moments when I had it, and had high hopes for Empire of Illusion as his own coverage on the state of corporate-controlled popular media.
Sadly, his moral alarmistry and dour fear-mongering falls flat in offering solutions to what could otherwise be clearly defined problems. In fact, I would call the whole thing “mindless dross”. I might have enjoyed a good parable on the horrors of neoliberalism just as much back then as I do now, but even by the wanting standards of penny anticapitalism, Empire was surprisingly low quality. I only keep this particular volume around as a nod to his much better earlier book, which I've been unable to relocate. Though, since then I've encountered many other different and nuanced sources on the rise of religious fundamentalism in North America that could be more accurate in its analysis and might paint a more enlightened picture going forward, even if Hedges' core point on the latent fascism of American religion turned out mostly correct.
I always feared should I ever revisit him, Hedges might lose the benefit of the doubt I had gave him. That happened, more or less, in the leadup to the 02016 election of Donald Trump. That year was very difficult for a lot of us, but the heat of it seemed to hit Hedges in a most peculiar way. He admitted on a live news stream to publishing leaked materials from the Israeli Mossad, and without public disclosure. While that probably doesn't seem like much in itself, the rub lied in the way it happened; the awkward moment of pause where he suddenly wondered if he really should have said what he did out loud, and then decided to roll with it anyway. The context was an off-the-rails debate between him and former US Secretary of Labour Robert Reich, over hacked emails from the Democratic National Convention and if they were valid a point of discourse despite their publisher (and likely hacker) being a Russian state propaganda operation — allegations which would be confirmed in gruesome detail only two years later. This would make some of Hedges' other positions of debate, and later appearances on Russian state television, all the more unfortunate in retrospect. While the whole affair was needlessly suspicious, I don't quite believe that Hedges is or was some secret operative in the service of a nefarious foreign government. What I think (or perhaps just hope) might be more accurate would be describe him as a more politically principled version of Seymour Hersh: a journalist who got fairly big following a once-huge story, yet when they went out looking for the next big hit, soon fell victim to a number of hidden interests wanting to abuse that hard-earned câchet for their own.
– Micah White
I've sometimes observed some of the more in the know followers of American Politics describe Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in odd terms. To quote one, "almost everything he writes is extremely consistent and based on perfectly logical reasoning, from insane premises." That was the feeling I had while reading The End of Protest. It was a perfectly logical, reasonable, highly researched, and well versed discursive on the methods and effectiveness of non-violent protest. ... but only so long as you implicitly agree with all of the nuts and bananas that congeals around White's central premise: that social revolutionary fervour is a total good in-and-of itself, completely notwithstanding any possible justification or even in what direction it goes. I suspect he took this incredibly odd approach in order to talk about his subject while getting around the usual political partisanship, taking his blend of left-wing political activism and trying to broaden its appeal to reach possible right-wing allies to achieve common ground on some strangely unspecified causes. I choose to suspect this because the alternative makes him look like a power-hungry madman, not necessarily caring when, where, or why a social revolution is taking place, only so long as he is somehow involved.
Micah White was one of the original organizers for the Occupy Wall Street protests which coincided with the Arab Spring a few years ago. Occupy Wall Street was, in turn, an extension of Ad-Busters Magazine, which White was a contributor. I do not doubt that the magazine was once important, especially to most of my own teachers, but having not lived through the most of its lifetime I could only ever approach the magazine from a forensic angle. By the time I had become interested in its particular bend of politics it already came with a history, and in that very recent history some things had gone Horribly Wrong™. Naomi Klein's No Logo is probably the most prominent example of what happened; how the vanguard of Ad-Busters' style of politics got collectively warped and twisted from being anti-business to pro-business, often against its own will. For its part, Ad-Busters suffered a death by a thousand papercuts along the same route. To quote someone who is more familiar with it than I am:
In about 1992, I am turning 13 and pretty naive of the world. However, the rest of the world is still naive: most of the pop culture is really light and pop. Then, just as I enter puberty, the pop culture gets much more socially and politically aware and confrontational. The birth of "alternative" culture. And then, just as I enter my mid-teens, the confrontational alternative culture kind of gave way to a more twee alternative culture. Its how we got from, say, Nirvana to No Doubt. And along with that, a lot of political and social commentary starts focusing not on confrontational politics, but on deconstructing social messages, looking at how consumerism and social expectations effect society. Ad-Busters is part of that.
... But at the same time as that is happening, that just feeds back into a type of consumerism. Because a big part of Ad-Busters is "I am too cool for mainstream culture," which is the exact same attitude that advertisers are going for. So that is kind of part of the fall of the 1990s, the switch from being confrontational to being cool. I think for the Ad-Busters crew, and for their impressionable young audience, media awareness was a magic bullet that would automatically transform people and make them question "the establishment." When that didn't happen, they thought of other hypotheses, or just doubled down on the media awareness needing to be more absolute, cutting out any type of culture that was at all attached to the "mainstream."
Despite everything, Ad-Busters was not consigned to just be a "product" of its own time. It tried out a hodgepodge of many counter-cultural things, and Occupy Wall Street was its most recent and visible, both in success and failure. Before the months-long protest was eventually put down by the New York Police Department, it had spawned multiple similar protests throughout the English speaking world and even added new terms into our lexicon. We are the 99%, without any statistical question. Yet now, Occupy Wall Street is considered a failure and only mentioned in passing, while their smaller right-wing counterpart in the “Tea Party” movement has survived for many years on, even attaining some degree of political and legislative power. (Though not without some co-option from special interests who suppressed the original message about protecting Medicare and Social Security from cutbacks. ... and that's assuming the whole thing wasn't just an astro-turf in the first place.) The unfortunate corollary could be found in the 02011 Arab Spring; how protest erupted across the middle east, but only resulted in change of governance in countries to whom it was either indifferent or beneficial towards western hegemony. Any place where the protests were fully in opposition to hegemonic interests were quickly suppressed, even at the cost of plunging some countries into civil war. The Arab Spring was the grand experimental hypothesis on the effectiveness of non-violent revolution, complete with fully delineated control groups and everything. Frustratingly, Micah White follows in Ad-Busters' tradition of refusing to admit they might be wrong in the grand scheme of things, regardless of noble intentions in the moment. White calls his book “the end of protest” only to dance around the subject, and still calls for even more protest at the end of it.
I can't bring myself to call this a bad book. It's annoying, shrill, and difficult to read more than a few pages at a time. I regret finishing this book to its final chapter, as it only brought me frustration. In any other instance, it would deserve the classification of the trashbin and it wouldn't even be mentioned here, much less granted a place on my shelves. (Look at this long review! Look at how much I take issue with!) Despite this, I cannot factually call it a terrible book. I cannot throw it away, perhaps for the same reason I gave so much respect to Ad-Busters even though they deserved none of it. I can see, throughout all the heterogeneous mixture of ideological doubletalk and neo-spiritualist nonsense, the calm and reasoned voice of someone who knows this topic much better than anyone else. Someone who has given a lot of hard thought on the matter and has reached a constructive thesis. I simply regret that person has to be Micah White; as I desperately cling to the 20% that is still worth saving while the other 80% rockets off into space. Perhaps it simply would've been easier for me if he really was the anarchistic sonuva bitch that his writing style suggests he is.
In some part of my mind, I've always admired the nonviolent protest movements that White was so involved in. I was never a protester myself, but I held deep respect for those who were, for their bravery if nothing else. I admired how they could march to a cause; how instead of simply sitting back and complaining they would actually go and do something to stop it. Which is why how it always ends up being pointless frustrates me to no end. It never accomplishes anything. It takes all that precious energy and willpower and wastes it away. The political left is so enamoured with nonviolent protest as a means of social action, but only because they want to appear as “the good guys” in any given scenario, to achieve results with “legitimacy.” Yet those results never come about, and they can only deny the “legitimacy” of that non-result. Perhaps it is because the forces to which nonviolent protest is known have become inoculated against its effectiveness (as White would argue), or perhaps because nonviolent protest has a completely misunderstood history and we're not even using it for the thing it was intended. Maybe nonviolent protest, as it is used right now, never actually achieved anything of its own merit that wasn't going to already be done anyway. Peaceful protest is a rather modern concept that is advanced in its methods; so when White attempts to weave it with a long 2000-year history of other protest events that were most definitely not peaceful while still proclaiming a modern virtue, he sounds like a thin layer of skin covering up something borderline. Martin Luther King Jr. operated a peaceful protest movement in the same context as Malcolm X did a violent one. Gandhi was only one participant in the quagmire that led to India's sovereignty. In the cases where peaceful protest wins out, it is almost always done as an alternative to a real non-peaceful threat. Even when White talks about it in his sections on voluntarism, peaceful protest has a very strict upper-limit on what it can achieve before it must become unpeaceful to progress any further, no matter what way you cut it. For this reason, I suspect, many police forces take action on peaceful protests as if they were violent anyway, since in their view its only a matter of time before police action would be justified. This is often where peaceful protests are most powerful in their own right, by baiting themselves towards a kind of martyrdom. Yet, it's never enough, no matter how many career photographers capture that moment of unjustified oppression. Hannah Arendt possibly puts into one paragraph what Micah White refuses to acknowledge in an entire book:
[The] decisive step in the preparation of living corpses is the murder of the moral person in man. This is done in the main by making martyrdom, for the first time in history, impossible. How many people here still believe that a protest has even historic importance? This skepticism is the real masterpiece of the [Nazi] SS [in the concentration camps]. Their great accomplishment. They have corrupted all human solidarity. Here the night has fallen on the future. When no witnesses are left, there can be no testimony. To demonstrate when death can no longer be postponed is an attempt to give death a meaning, to act beyond one's own death. In order to be successful, a gesture must have social meaning. There are hundreds of thousands of us here, all living in absolute solitude. That is why we are subdued no matter what happens.
The George Floyd Rebellion and the subsequent police riots forced me to revisit some of the material in this book. My updates are as follows:
This book is limited by being a product of its own time. It was written in that interlude just after Occupy Wall Street ended. Black Lives Matter existed as an Internet media campaign following the full acquittal of the murderer of the young Trayvon Martin, but was still before the police killings of Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner in New York City, which prompted mass unrest. This book is situated precisely in that very narrow window of time, and suffers for it. Even though Micah White's stance on violent-versus-nonviolent protest seemed fleeting, the neucleus of this book still remained perfectly bloodless, in a way which typified the popular protest literature which existed at that time in history. Unfortunately for it, things have accelerated, and we've borne witness of a mountain of corpses.
The grand experimental hypothesis regarding the effectiveness of nonviolent protest continued when the George Floyd protests reached the Battle of Portland. Street activism was split between two groups: the "moderate" nonviolent protest group called Rose City Justice who primarily operated during the daytime, and the "radical" protest of (what soon expanded, but was at first the) Youth Liberation Front who operated after nightfall. Rose City Justice brought together a very large constituency of people in Portland who stood against police brutality, once amassing a street protest large enough to completely occupy the Morrison Bridge. They were disciplined and well-organized, but also so committed to nonviolence that they actively avoided any direct confrontation with the police. They ran many "successful" marches, but could affect no change whatsoever. The few times the Portland Police actually did interface with them, they were able to completely rout and demoralize the RCJ using very simple propaganda techniques, no police brutality required. Within a month, these protests dwindled, to the point when RCJ announced they would suspend all further operations -- but not before having their core leadership team spend all the anti-brutality money they raised on a group trip to an expensive spa.
The Youth Liberation Front were, at the end of the day, the only ones who managed to keep the protest pressure at a relative constant. Though they started off small and the police were very easily able to control them through street kettling, they were able to adapt to the state-sponsored terrorism which the Portland Police would later commit on the downtown area. After the passage of "Tear Gas Tuesday", YLF erected a network electric fans and leafblowers to control the dispersal of police gas, and they also were only ones who had enough trained street medics to tend to the afflicted. There was more of a focus on setting up infrastructures of mutual aid and other logistics systems to actually keep the protests going, instead of just being one-off events to pose for the cameras which may or may not end up on the news. Eventually, when the federal government would send in hired mercenaries to subdue the Portland downtown, they were the only ones who were able to document the non-police security forces "disappearing" random persons into unmarked vans. In any other time, they would've been the "black bloc" of rowdy troublemakers who always show up to "disrupt" or "discredit" an "otherwise" peaceful protest, but when government terrorism descended upon their town, that same "black bloc" was the only thing remaining to stand up and protect everyday people from partisan government agents. This is not to say the YLF were rioters itching for a fight; so many of the Portland YLF's innovations in countering the onslaught of rioting policemen were precisely based around increasing protester safety, especially in the face of overwhelming force and mass surviellance. This focus on protest safety was a new facet for the time, especially for the black bloc, as beforehand their sudden appearance was too often synonymous with police infiltration and "agent provocateurs" whose interest was in quelling all street protest as quickly and effectively as possible.
Even the well-armed "boogaloo boys" subgroup of protesters, the nihilistic attention seekers in military gear who giddily spoke about going to war against the oppressive government and flaunting their conspicuous displays of freshly-bought automatic rifles, were too-often nowhere to be found once the feds actually started firing. (Wouldn't want to get arrested and have all this very expensive equipment confiscated by the police now, would we?) Yet the 2nd Amendment Affectionados and the Perfectly Docile Liberals of Polite Society were not the only "nonviolent protesters" who mysteriously vanished once things turned for the worse, leaving behind only a group of anarchist misfits to clean up after their mess. When shit hit the fan regarding the George Floyd protests, or the Hong Kong protests in the year before, or even the strangely astro-turfed and curiously well-armed "reopen the economy" protests which occurred inbetween on the heels of the Novel Coronavirus plague of early 02020 -- Micah White, too, was nowhere to be seen. Thinking he would have something worth saying, I tried looking him up again, only to find he was on indefinite hiatus. Protests had engulfed the world over, yet he had abandoned his position. It led me to wonder, like some previous authors in my library, what the exact angle in this book even existing precisely was. If I had to make any guess as to what his take on the police riots would be, all roads would lead to one conclusion. If it was a triumph of Voluntarism that the Battle of Portland could last for more than two months, then that would mean he was right. If it was a tragedy of Voluntarism that the Battle of Portland even happened in the first place, then that would also mean he was right. If peaceful, nonviolent protest was a resounding success, then he was right. If peaceful, nonviolent protest accomplished absolutely nothing, then he was also right. All of these statements can't possibly be true at the same time, but it would be what White would claim nonetheless.
The core thesis of the book relies on his "unified theory of revolution" and his four categories of protest, which could be arranged like a political compass along the axes of "subjective/objective" and "material/spiritual". Subjectivist protest is simply about changing people's inner opinions, but not much beyond that. Structuralist protest would state that revolutions primarily occur by forces which are outside of individual or collective choice, and thus tends to measure the likelihood of uprisings and revolution through things like the United Nations Food Price Index, insofar as those statistics are correctly and readily measured. Voluntarism as the most prominent field of protest would posit that revolutions exist as a result of human action, and thus revolutions may be triggered as a result of it too, for both good-faith and bad-faith actors in unfortunately equal measure. Lastly, there is Theurgist protest, which is utter nonsense requiring a baseline assumption of "if all else fails, use witchcraft." The fact that it was even listed at all (despite being technically correct in the most generous interpretation of what we, today, would sooner ascribe to proxies for misinformation campaigns) was to my eyes the warning sign that Micah White wasn't entirely on the level, even if couldn't back that suspicion up at the time.
This book remains useful only insofar as those categories of protest remain a working taxonomy, but unlike other books I've read where they can justify their unstable positions by having a singular brass-tacks chapter which breaks everything down in practical terms, White's "unified theory of revolution" is hardly worth the price of admission. Subjectivist protest, he claims, use social networks as a vector for action. The term "social network" would've been a pretty new and fancy buzzword around the time of this book's publishing, but since then it would also be proven that subjectivist protest could also be prevented by the exact same means. If echo chambers form around people who remain like-minded in self-selected opinion, the routes by which subjective protest could actually happen would ossify and restrict, driving wedges between groups whose standings on any given issue is a matter of life and death against those to whom it is just an opinion which they may freely disagree. Structuralist protest would also risk falling into the same fatalistic trap as Marxist historical determinism: the communist revolution is inevitable upon the collapse of capitalism, which is also inevitable. Why fight for the revolution which will surely happen on its own, any time now, eventually? To try and adjust this dynamic would mean to flirt with accelerationism, which is liable to create more problems than it would solve, but to leave as-is would reduce you to little more than an opportunist. Voluntarism falls victim to the same fallacies as other praxeological disciplines. Did your moment of protest fail to manifest because of structural forces which have disempowered your material conditions enough to make affective change by your hand unlikely, or did you simply not pull yourself up by your bootstraps hard enough? Did that other protest actually succeed because their leaders persevered and did not give up, or did they "have help" from someone in the shadows who stood to benefit? These should not be interpreted as pros-or-cons to any one particular approach, nor does it seem that any actually successful protest uses a combination of all of them. (They can't, as a few of them are mutually-exclusive with one another.) All of it seems to dance around the subject about how one proposes to affect material change through the use of protest. This key element which would form the very reason for why one might involve themselves in a protest movement at all, is nowhere to be found in this book, in a way which suggests it was never there in the first place.
I no longer think Micah White is a "power-hungry madman" or even an "anarchistic sonuva bitch." However, such labels might be an improvement from his more accurate description: a grifter and a careerist, in the vein of Rose City Justice. The impression I had of his seeming nonchalance regarding the specific character of his hitherto unspecified revolutionary protest, had less to do with a wanton lust for destruction, and more to do with something so simple as money. He was working to sell the product of "effective activism" to anyone he hoped would buy it, and would likely buy it from him. It is for this reason why he proclaimed the "end of protest" only to continue on and act as if protest had never really ended at all. It is classic marketing. The old thing is bad and flawed, but the new thing is good, so invest in the new thing and please not to notice it is the same thing as before with a different label on the box. This was made manifest in the organization he founded following this book's publication: "Activist Graduate School: Online classes for activists." It is/was a subscription-based streaming service, costing around 30 dollars a month, to access interviews of various "activists" of similar ilk to himself. Ever the capitalist, but I am not one to besmirch someone who still has to make a living in this cold-hearted and unforgiving world, in any way they can. Yet, one can only be terminally wrong about so much for so long; so it takes a certain level of gall to rent-seek over an intellectual property that doesn't even do the thing it claims to do in the first place.
"Peaceful protest" began from a misunderstanding of and a recuperation from the freshly-assassinated Martin Luther King, and it was promoted through culture at a time when broadcast media was very tightly controlled by both the state and paragovernmental forces, as a means to ensure another Martin Luther King would never cause such trouble ever again. It was a form of Orwellian newspeak, which was extremely expressive, but compartmentalized in a way to exclude and prevent. So long as "peaceful protest" remained the primary way one could "have a dream", then dreams would never come true. This form of protest was not about changing the status quo, but preserving it, and that dynamic created an industry of social control via a system of perverse incentives. It allowed a particular type of "career activist" like Micah White to take form, and to subsist as a media figure when allowed within the constraints of a given media system. But there's a catch: if the systemic change you are hoping for ever actually happened, you'd quickly find yourself out of a job. Thus you must do a strange and considered tango to the tune of a revolution who you must always be agitating for, but must never actively arrive. Revolution could be dangerous and unorthodox, but it could also be perfectly routine, and it is for this reason that "protest" "movements" who seek to preserve the status quo would be that much more effective. This "handbook of protest" containing plenty of theory without much practical instruction, fits very neatly into that paradigm, and it is something White wants to sell you on as a consultant in his business. Are you a closeted sexual minority who wants to be able to live without fear? Be a part of my super-duper protest movement! Are you a raging bigot who wants to make sure that same sexual minority never sees the light of day without another bullet from your gun? Then be a part of my super-duper protest movement! Through this lens, even the inclusion of Theurgism as a method of protest makes perfect sense, as it too is a way for your everyday social media grifter to soothsay various predictions about fortuitious miracles from the hand of God himself which would finally strike down your own political enemies -- even if, especially if, said miracles never actually take place. It's all about building and gaining an audience, and keeping them for your own profit.
It's very unfortunate, but the tradition of protest from which Micah White hails from has proven to be little more than a dead end in terms of providing something useful toward achieving a more equitable, less corrupt, or even outright functional society. Black Lives Matter has been operating as a protest movement for nearly a decade, yet it still has not accomplished its goal of a safer society for racialized peoples, despite the purely statistical success that it had in winning over hearts and minds. Their opponents reacted to them "violently" protesting in the streets with the same vigor and institutional discreditment as they did when a single person politely knelt during the national anthem at a football game. The purely factual "nonviolence" was reduced to a game of semantics, all while their leaders and pointmen were "nonviolently" spirited away, whereupon they "committed suicide" under the cloak of obscurity when the news media had finally given rest. (The fact that BLM still exists at all, despite how its most important figures keep turning up dead, is a testament to its important and unyielding mission.) This was probably a long time coming, as even when the anglosphere was less tense and heated, White's methods still gained exactly nothing when trying to bite at the heels of a massive and uncompromising hegemonic order. The question remains, if nonviolent protest was never possible in the first place, what do we do now? Violent protest may get the goods, as both the George Floyd rebellion and the anti-COVID armed protests that preceded it have all-too-plainly proven, but it is also a terrifying prospect. Peaceful protest may have always been an illusion, but from a hegemonic perspective, it was a necessary one. Now that the power structures have relied on it to impede the rate and need of progress, far too much and far too often, the utility of peaceful protest lies shattered on the floor. With us no longer under its spell, all that's left is a world of constant and unending conflict, and that's a realization that many of us remain too unsteeled to accept.
– James M. Van Verth, Lars M. Bishop
Mathematics for computer science is not at all like the mathematics one gets in a classroom. Any programmer versed enough to know the limitations on numerical data types knows this, and more often than not the actual mathematical application is never the optimal way to go if one requires speed on the algorithmic complexity. This large volume covers most basic things in linear algebra and basic physics, all geared primarily towards a computer science context that a generalized university classroom might risk overcomplicating, and in some specific cases, outright misinforming. Sadly, due to its limited scope, it stops just short of entering the meatier subjects in computer science that use specialized math, such as graph theory and cryptographic foundations.
– Eric Klinenberg
A book written in the wake of the Telecommunications Act of 01996 in the United States and the subsequent loss of independent local media outlets across the country.
– Nick Davies
A history of the news industry within the wake of rapid corporate media consolidation and the effects it has on media quality and public assurance, as written from the perspective of a long-time British journalist. A different perspective one must take when trying to study the rise of the public relations industry and the function for institutions of publicity.
– Jason Gregory
A practical text on digital frameworks written by the lead software engineer at Naughty Dog, who was essential in programming for the Crash Bandicoot games, if I'm remembering right. It's a massive and heavy volume covering pretty much every topic within the field of entertainment software engine capabilities, but it doesn't cover any one specific one in necessary detail. It's more of a catalogue of topics than it is a one-stop-shop, and you'd probably need to use it as a branching point to other texts within the field more than you would need to use it all to itself, which is a mercy because it is very well researched and has a good list of citations and bibliographies. The bastard went and published an updated 2nd edition just after I finished reading the first, and this 1000 page book was the reason I couldn't even measure up to Jonathan Ball's 95 Book Challenge for one whole year, as it is 20 books of worth weighted as only one.
– William Ury, Roger Fisher, Bruce Patton
I heard this book was supposedly the authoritative text on conflict mediation, though if that turns out to be true or not still eludes me. The basis of the theory was developed at the Harvard Negotiation Project. The book outlines a method of conflict resolution that is reported to work 100% of the time, so long as the trouble parties involved only care more about the material interests at the core of the conflict. But there is an unfortunate corollary: it will not work whenever the material interests are eclipsed by the desire for the destruction of the opposing party. This puts a hard upper-limit on the exact effectiveness of this particular method, making it better meant for preventing smaller conflicts from escalating into larger ones.
Having read it, I can at least say the theory is sound; but things are always better on paper than they are in practice. I'm also not entirely satisfied with the recommendations the authors had for dealing with power differentials between various parties. Even still, what is listed here is a damn-sight better than how most respond to conflict. A key passage of the text is about how the goal should never be to simply eliminate or suppress conflict, but to instead be more intelligent about how to deal with it.
– Marshall McLuhan
My first McLuhan book, and from what I understand, the last actually sane book he wrote before he went five ways crazy. The Gutenburg Galaxy is an unusual work, even as an academic one, drawing various points together from multiple disparate sources, with many threads of logic running concurrently. However, once you realize what the singular running theme of the book is, it is surprisingly easy to understand as a history of written word and the various developments it underwent after the invention of the printing press. Though, as with any glossy history, it can only talk in big broad strokes that can't cover any one specific thing for too long. Alberto Manguel might offer the same history in a much more clear and personable way, but McLuhan is at least interesting from a historical perspective, and how he united these many different lines of thought into a single new field soon known as media studies.
– Thomas H. Cormen, Charles E. Leiserson, Ronald L. Rivest, Clifford Stein
The big white book of computer science. I had to pick it up one year due to a complete inability to understand the essentials of measuring algorithmic complexity due to a very scatterbrained professor with a somewhat dismissive attitude and a very thick Quebecois accent -- an experience I later found to be shared amongst most of his students. Never finished reading it in full, but upon glance at the table of contents today, I picked up many of the core concepts in this text from other sources, with the specialized topics later in the work like multi-threaded algorithms still new to me. Maybe I'll finish it in full when the to-read pile dwindles some more.
– Nina B. Huntemann, Matthew Thomas Payne
An academic anthology quite clear in its aims as a collective study of militarism in mainstream gaming. One of the first actually enlightened works by Huntemann, who before this was only known for her somewhat misfortunate production of a vehemently anti-gaming documentary with Jhut Sally's Media Education Foundation. The work approaches gaming as a method of propaganda, with a large and long history reaching until the Playstation 2, most of the essays actually written by earnest academics and ludologists, not simply moral alarmists as before.
– Gregory Baum
This book was another overview of Polanyi’s economic theories, as written by a Catholic theologian and ethicist. Perhaps that is a sign of the type of person Polanyi attracts, possibly a detraction from his academic pedigree. I decided to go over this small book before visiting Polanyi’s primary sources in order to gap the expanse of time between then and now. Reading Baum has led me to understand the common charge of neo-primitivism which libertarians use against Polanyi – the charge is unfair, but I can understand how it could be made. Polanyi is like the philosopher I would’ve better liked to read when I was a teenager, wondering with some terror at the scale of the opaque and globalized society I was just beginning to understand. The notes on “complex society” are a clear attestation to that. That said, the more I read of Polanyi, the less hope I end up having that I’ll find the solutions I’m after. Only proper, really. Perhaps I understand Polanyi less and more about the reasons for why I am drawn to him in the first place. I might just be a sucker for the very idea of an ethical economics, if only because it seems like such an impossibility in itself.
– Malcolm Harris
For me, this was a motivated read; not for trying to familiarize myself with the author's argument, but rather because I was after a specific piece of information which I was led to believe this book contained. For that purpose, it did, but it also makes my impression of what the book was actually about a bit fuzzy. Complicating matters more, I read this book at the same time as Corey Robin's The Reactionary Mind, to the point where the two are almost jumbled together in my recollection. Harris turned out the one more helpful for what I needed. Nonetheless, the mere act of trying to summarize this book would be to demand paragraphs of description for something so ordinary and mundane it would fade away from everyday notice. It's all too familiar, even with its complete lack of conclusion.
Malcolm Harris was probably the first to write the a book about the Millennial generation while being a millennial himself. His primary contention is to understand the actual functionings of our cursed demographic as “human capital” -- not so much people or human beings, but rather as biological vehicles for investment in late-stage capitalism. The entire socialization of this generation could only really be understood through this lens, where parents of even the mildest amount of privilege do not raise families for the sake of their own happiness in life, but instead as instruments for making money. With this understood, a lot of the previously-vexing mysteries of millennial status in western countries crystalize into all-too-clear vision. The student debt crisis taking form in most of the United States and some parts of Canada is perhaps the most obvious psychological scar of this ongoing post-02008 flagellation, but the devil lies in the smaller, more personable details.
Harris' analysis on the scoioeconomic conditions of young adults within the 02010's is fairly Marxist in all but direct quotation, but unlike the Marxists of the past, Harris himself is fully subsumed in the neoliberal moment -- an ongoing nightmare to which there is no alternative, no matter how desperately one is needed. Despite his pretentions as an anarcho-communist, there is no revolution coming about to save the Harris millennial, nor any opiates for the masses. It was so unbelievably bleak that even my socialist ass didn't bother finishing the book in full; content to get the information I came for and get out quickly. Mercifully, that happened pretty early on.
As far as that enterprise went, my interest came from the chapters he did on the modern education system, which covered the first full half of the book. The frame of reference he uses is the work of the sciologist of childhood, Jürgen Zinnecker, and the process of “pedagogical masking” which is used to recast the labour one does as a student from being “a job” which one is expected to do, into “learning”: a granted activity which is remunerated in itself, and therefore not requiring money as payment for one's labour. This can quickly turn into a problem when one lives in a society where money is required for virtually everything. It all seems fairly straightforward, but I have some suspicion that Harris' interpretation of Zinnecker might be a little loose with the source material. There's more to be done there, but it seems like a rather obscure source.
The reason this book is noteworthy to me is because Harris is probably the first left-wing source on a topic that always seemed to me like a prime focus for socialist action, but no matter how much I searched I only ever found right-wingers acting on the topic. From the mid-01990's Republican pseudotarianism of Robert Epstein, to even earlier on in the 01970's with the Catholic patriarchalist Ivan Illich: the only books I found which tried to point out issues latent to the education system itself were only done either by conservatives or pre-neo-reactionaries. There was the occassional thing done by someone of social-justice leaning about some very specific aspects of when it goes wrong, like the “school-to-prison pipeline”, but never anything that covered the whole range of it. The faintest look at the subject of critical pedagogy showed a very strong conservative bias, even if said conservative thinkers were only ever at the mostly-ignored margins of conservative thought generally. There was a kind of excuse for it when I happened upon a radio series from the 01990's called The Education Debates which tried to explain the reasoning for that as the process of education itself being an inherently conservative act. While it made sense at the time, or just generally in a vaccuum, the underlying assumptions behind it haven't quite aged as well as I hoped. Indeed, the only line of argument that survived the whole series was the one leftist (again, the single one) who warned that the push towards greater education in the mathematics, technology, engineering, and scientific fields was less about advancing the well being of society generally, and more about producing a glut of skilled workers which the capitalist class could then exploit on the cheap. (Presaging this book a little too well, it seems.) The previous authors I've encountered only went through the motions of doing actual research on the subject to find justifications for their highly-specific maladjusted bigotries: Illich being critical of the feminist origins of compulsory schooling and the encroaching secularity of the public schooling system against the religious system, or Epstein wanting to justify his bizzare needs for exploitative child labour and extreme corporal punishment against the slightest possible insubordinations.
Perhaps the only reason there was ever any criticism from reactionaries towards the education system, a system whose primary purpose is about the reproduction and entrenchment of social heirarchies and power, is that the education system changed at some point and failed to continue entrenching some aspect that was specific to them, or just wasn't entrenching as strongly as they wanted. Even today, when the partisan media decides to do some neatly-standardized rail against “too much political correctness on university campuses”, it always boils down to some overprivileged elderlies upset that they can no longer publicly insult the people they think are lesser than them. Whatever the reasons they may give, even when following the university standard of doing research and showing one's work, it always reveals itself as sophistry after the fact. As my breif encounter with Corey Robin taught me of conservatism, there's no “there” there, and I was perhaps a fool for giving them the time of day. This was all back when liberal society at least gave pretentions to “going outside of one's comfort zone” to “hear out both sides of an issue” in some vague deference to a half-forgotten quote of John Stewart Mill, even if it was all a ploy to generate a Chomskyesque control on the boundaries of acceptable debate. (Back then, I still took that bastard Jordan Peterson seriously, and what a mistake that was!)
That dance took two to tango, and since the election of Barack Obama the right wing generally has slowly given up on cooperative dialogue, with the left, the centre, or anyone, and has started agitating for some demented violence to alleviate their imagined frustrations. With the sophistries revealed, the force holding up that old research on critical pedagogy has weakened considerably, and the foundational prospects for my own research along with it. While I don't have the same doubts about Harris' grounding, he didn't do much to renew my interest in the topic. Harris' issue, which is the same issue Marxists have in the neoliberal world generally, in that criticizing the capitalist system he becomes capitalism's biggest triumphalist. To Harris, solutions to this issue are impossible, because capitalist systems would openly prevent any fixes from being applied so long as it continues to benefit from the current state. Regardless if his analysis of the education system's role in the active conversion of students into human capital is correct, any alternatives will never accrue enough material resources to mount an acutal challenge. So why bother?
In some ways, compared to the conservatives, I wonder if that's actively worse...
– J. R. Stanfield
Ever since I've grown politically aware, Economics and Market Fundamentalism have always been one of those things I struggled with as common parlance. Yet, I could never fully explain what exactly about them rubbed me the wrong way. For all unfettered markets were said to create, I've only known them to destroy. Libertarians may still expound Free Markets as a means of collective egalitarianism, but the result of their logic always seems to be atomized societies and massive corporations with large concentrations of wealth. Was economics a science meant to explain observable phenomena? Or does economics only exist to justify and continue pre-existing market conditions? Eventually, I heard a radio documentary on the somewhat obscure Hungarian-Canadian economist, Karl Polanyi, and it was the first time I had clear words given to my hitherto unspeakable fears.
As a contemporary rival to early monetarists and neoliberals like Milton Friedman, Polanyi was an anthropologist who studied the economies of ancient societies. He later laid the groundwork for a comparative economics, where the industrial-capitalist marketplace was only one of many possible routes of social organization. Even later, he turned to criticism of the methodology of economics itself - where it would not be enough to have an alternative economics, but instead have an alternative to economics altogether. Polanyi died in 01964, a ways before my time, so I searched out this book as a precursory review of his theories. It's all here, from the economistic fallacy, to market embeddedness, the problems of fictitious commodities, the double-bind which led to the corporate welfare state, and even a long summary on the meaning of personal freedom in a complex-industrial society.
Sadly, Polanyi's work is aged. For example, his criticisms of economic formalism's scientific evasion and semi-religious character would be given the contemporary name of praxeology. Even Stanfield notes that Polanyi's theories of disembedded economies did not lead him to point at the corollary of a disembedded polity, despite it logically following. Nonetheless, all I've studied about Polanyi thus far has made him the first economist I could openly tolerate! ... at least, without fear of supporting some ulterior motive.
– Michael Kimmel
The first half of the book is the most interesting part. It defines three historical bases for traditional masculinity, each of different source, and how the three strove in turf-war. The Heroic Artisan was crushed by the Industrial Revolution, the Genteel Patriarch gets woefully discredited by the American Civil War, and the Self-Made Man of the capitalist marketplace eventually won out -- and then, lacking opponents, proceeded to cannibalize itself in a pattern that has since repeated several times over. A "Male Privilege Economy" (my description, not his) took form to deal with the distribution of masculine resources and the dwindling sources thereof, as the institution of manhood itself -- like capitalism in many other spheres of study -- begins to offer itself in solution to the very problems it causes. Unable to mend the faulty assumptions it rests on, leading it to fail over and over, in the same method each time.
The book offers a good grounding for the sociological development of many aspects modern masculinity, including the things often thought to be "innate" or "biological" given how eternal they otherwise seem. An example: homophobia as a homosocial construct only has a history since 01900 that was born out of a mix of workplace competition and class-based social control from the bourgeois onto the working class; whereas beforehand, physical and platonic love between even heterosexual friends was actually quite common. ... or so Kimmel's argument would go. A problem of Kimmel's rhetoric is that it assumes the opposite situation in a past state simply due to the lack of evidence towards it, leading to spurious argumentation. He would posit that women were only first disallowed into the industrial workplace by the first wave of exclusionary masculine cannibalism, and that beforehand in agrarian societies men and women worked as equals. (A claim, while logical, I'm not entirely sure I can believe.)
Other problems with the text includes its American-centric argumentation, and how it just seems to denote most problems of manly malaise as culturally linked to the first trauma from the imposition of the capitalist marketplace in the mid-01800's -- in short, it's all capitalism's fault, which is an empty and fatalist thesis. I didn't much like this at the time, though with some degree of retrospect I can see in it a substantivist outlook on the development of gender roles in North America. ... as far as what I think of this book personally, though? Well, sometimes, I feel like I'm on the verge of making a huge and irreversible mistake, simply for lack of other options.
– Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman
There are two schools of media study: the McLuhanesque school which studies the physical forms and remnants of "media," largely as a continuation of English literary theory, and the Chomskyesque school which studies the power structures innate to large and distributed systems of information such as "the media," largely a continuation of the Frankfrut School of social criticism that arose in response to the great depression and the insurgence of national fascism throughout the 01930's in Europe. This tome is infamous for introducing the concept of the propaganda model to media analysis, which was largely applied to the political context of the 01960's thru 1980's of the United States, and to almost an obsessive degree that it is somewhat difficult to refute in the sheer quantity of evidence supporting it.
The political context it writes within was a bit before my time, and as a result it read a little more like history and much less like political theory. However, the main take away someone can find in a work as long and winding as this, is that "the realm of acceptable discourse," that is to say what we might define as either right-wing or left-wing, is always arbitrarily defined to some degree -- this assertion, amidst others, hasn't earned Chomsky many favours from powered interests; isolating the Chomskyesque school of media theory from official representation in favour of the McLuhanesque.
One not wishing to undertake a tome as massive as this one might find an audio recording of Chomsky's 01988 CBC Massey Lecture to cover a lot of his case examples, but the common recordings available have usually been either censored or highly abridged, and might not cover the propaganda model itself in any great detail.
– Marshall McLuhan
The first book McLuhan ever wrote, and what a book it is. It is a commentary on various advertisements and pieces of so-called popular culture from the post 2nd World War and early 01950's. McLuhan takes the advertisements, presents them in all their usual forms, and then proceeds to viciously and thoroughly take the piss out of 'em. However, it is not like the defanged parody of mocketing we see in ad commentary today. McLuhan's early writing was as dark and humorous and it was intelligent and cunning. He is harshly critical of the early mass media and its nascent consumerism, and goes even further to link various themes together from seemingly unrelated sources to paint a gruesome sociological picture of mass society through the augment of mass media. He never revisited these topics, and made it seem like he forgot about The Mechanical Bride as the early corporate media subsumed him so. Even the forward to the facsimile copy I finally found tried to paint it as "an odd souvenir from an age long past," trying to hide the true criticisms he presented. What could have caused such a fantastic writer to fall so far...?
– James Winter
Books (in addition to Lies the Media Tells Us, Common Cents, Democracy's Oxygen, and The Big Black Book which I've only done some degree of skimming) that I was either freely given or I pilfered directly from the author himself. I forget exactly what one, it was a little vague, but he may or may not have suggested to indulge my book collecting habit and I took him up on what I interpreted that offer to be. Dr. Winter was one of my early university professors, which served as my introduction into media studies. He is an old Chomskyite who carries a very distinctive untrusting bent to his view upon the mainstream media that might be labelled as highly conservative due to its obstinate stubbornness if it wasn't so clearly left-wing in its own bias.
I am thankful to Mr. Winter for imparting (or, more accurately, enabling) a distrust of most mainstream media and standard brands of politics, but to merely replace one kind of bullshit with another kind of bullshit can only make one more crazy and not less. That turned out to be a lesson I needed to learn the hard way. I wonder if such storming is necessary to overcome and reach a more enlightened position. ... for the dignity of my past selves, I can only hope as much.
– Colin Beavan
A book that I quite liked reading at the moment, but it was ruined for me retrospectively by the fact that the written material was produced hand-in-hand with a documentary film about similar subject matter. Given the nature of the environmentalist subject matter it covered, I felt it would've been more authentic to do one or the other and not actually do both, else it might risk the illusion that most of the events covered were staged.
– Naomi Klein
A book on the rise of marketing in relation to consolidating corporate power, covering a stretch of time throughout the 01990's. Its aims were to reveal the tactics of indirection used by "the brands" through the marketed power of "branding" to operate economically parasitic functions on both developing and developed world alike.
However pure its intentions were, I consider this to be a very dangerous book, and mostly for reasons that are quite beside itself. What Klein was attempting to research was fairly new until that point, and she was likely the first to offer what might have been a cogent (if incomplete) analysis on the methods of branding. So new it was, even the marketing agencies responsible for the management of the topmost brands of the market were themselves unaware of what exactly it was that they were doing. Klein was the first to offer a coherent writeup on the subject to anyone at all, including them, which turned out to be a huge favour. Thus began a long process of recuperation, in which this decidedly anti-business book would soon be heralded as the best pro-business thing to ever grace the marketing profession. Klein unwittingly handed her opponents the very club they used to beat her with. Worse, much of her own hard-done research on guerrilla resistance to corporate power would soon end up as a more powerful weapon in corporate hands. Culture jamming and anti-ads were quite the innovations for the time, but not many people these days still consider them to be an effective form of protest ever since it was discovered that corporations could use them just as well as the activists. Anne Elizabeth Moore is likely the one figure from my library who wrote about exactly what happened in the wake of No Logo.
Klein's writing after this turned much darker. The Shock Doctrine was a hard turn into a much more pessimistic territory, and her politics shifted from the flavour-of-the-month liberal humanism into being a hardcore leftist and environmentalist. I welcome this and always have, but I can't help but see in her actions a kind of personal penance born of abject horror. A public sign of her own dreadful awareness that she set out to stand next to the greats such as Noam Chomsky, only to discover herself next to Edward Bernays.
This book and Manufacturing Consent were the two that laid the foundation of my formal education in communication studies. Paraded before nearly all the first-year undergrads, the two of them were considered the primary flagstones of the particular kind of anti-corporate leftism that my professors of old trade union stock lived and breathed. It wasn't a matter of being brainwashed by the academic hivemind, or even falsely flattering my professors' sensibilities for good marks; it was something that I openly accepted and welcomed. The perils and contradictory expectations forced upon my younger self by the ever-mysterious "mainstream media" was something I had already grown fairly suspicious of. I wasn't even thinking of it in terms of propagandist power politics as we might do today: my perspective on the matter was entirely juvenile. I thought the mass media promoted art and music that I thought was boring and only liked by people I knew whom I found personally antagonistic; and that the broadcast media of the 01990's till early aughts was also competitively hostile to video games, the early internet, and other things that I actually liked. I also had a sense about the mass media being a possible source for all the excess amounts of homophobia and toxic masculinity that I and others had to deal with in our lives, though I didn't quite have the exact words to express it at the time. It was just another impersonal and constant reminder that I was to be considered outside of what was considered "normal", and frankly I got enough of that judgmental attitude from church as it was. When academic communication studies came along, it was like a breath of fresh air; that the mass media was not this immutable force which we were helpless before, but could instead be criticized and – when needed – replaced entirely. This book from Klein, in addition to Douglas Rushkoff's The Merchants of Cool, was a part of that. It took things commonplace and known to everyone having grown up in society centred around the American broadcast media, and charged it with new and perhaps horrifying meaning.
Of course, I might have been too young at the time to really handle it all. I sometimes joke that in communication studies I was never really "learning new things" as one aught to do in university, but instead on the wild and intoxicating trip of having all my innermost secret suspicions confirmed to me in grand sequence. That constant intellectual intoxication would soon have terrible side effects. After I had read No Logo, I went into a sort of frenzy. I developed a phobia of branding, and branding specifically. It was relatively harmless as far as irrational fears go, if only because of how abstract it was, but I began to rapidly devour any book on the subject I could find in hopes of... I can't remember what, exactly. Something about it or something in it. Something that was actually there or something that I merely imagined. Perhaps just something I wildly misunderstood? Whatever it was, it drove me to find what might have been a "cure" for branding. Something which would've rendered the mysterious and black magic at the heart of it entirely inert – at least, that's what I estimate it might have been. It's been so long ago that I've all but forgotten the specifics, along with the fear itself. Developing a healthy sense of anti-capitalist sentiment following the Great Recession of 02008 likely helped with that, or at least made other, more pressing concerns take its place.
– Hannah Arendt
A book on the nature of totalitarian movements, written by a German-Jewish philosopher with a characteristic focus on World War II and its aftermath. Recent political developments spurred me to attempt this unabridged tome, and with some irony it didn’t necessarily help. I even glanced over Eichmann in Jerusalem, but it didn't really answer the enquiry I had. While there were some interesting anecdotes on German and Russian totalitarianism, I am ultimately less interested in the bogeymen of ages gone as I am worried about more current trends towards fascism. (In fact, I understand them less now as I am more aware of what might be my own possibilities towards it, which frightens me even more.) Other parts of the book include the creation of racism as a component of imperialism, which was at least straightforward, as well as the section on the historical development of antisemitism, which was the most enlightening of it all.
When one is not enfranchised, power looks like a secret club one cannot enter, where influencers exchange influence in luxury country clubs that won't let any ol’ nobody in. Regardless of if power and politics actually works that way or not, (it doesn't,) that is still what it looks like to the outside observer. Put into the context of early industrialization, it led the first totalitarians to assume secret societies and shadowy cabals were the puppet-masters behind all the opaque market chaos. Even Eichmann was tasked with fruitless investigations into Freemasonry before the Nazi government ever turned their gaze towards the Jewish Question. But what is stranger still is what happened when these baseless fears were eventually given legitimacy. Those who totalitarianism appealed to had never before understood power on their own; so when they were given power for the first time, they unwittingly turned into the very thing they criticized. They tried to replicate the structures of pre-industrial, close-kinship community upscaled to meet the same requirements for larger populations. The scale didn’t quite work out, resulting in obtuse and labyrinthine administrative structures, impossible-to-understand for anyone who wasn't already within the inner-party's social circles. The plot twist at the end of that story is when the supposedly heroic peoples who wanted to defend themselves from all the dark conspirators must suddenly (or fail to) realize; that they, themselves, were the secret shadowy cabal bent on world domination all along.
Arendt's core thesis is that totalitarianism is a unique evil that exists independent of the political thought it claims to hold; you cannot condemn the fascism of a left-wing party while still being sympathetic to the fascism of a right-wing party, or vice-versa. The reasons for why totalitarianism is horrible are historically evident, but it is obvious Arendt still struggled with the specifics of why it got as bad as it did. Reading between her lines, my takeaway was the abdication of personal responsibility. Totalitarian thought engenders powerlessness in its followers; both before, when Jews and/or Freemasons and/or Wall Street and/or Corporations are all in control of everything and you'll never make a dent on any of it – as well as after, when Dear Leader has everything in this bureaucratic mess all planned out and just trust him everything will be fine. (This actually holds a lot of appeal to nervous persons in what Polanyi terms as “complex society”, when the results of individual actions are too often opaque and unclear.) The problem is, at no point is one's own personal agency actually taken away. The individual person still owns the responsibility of their own actions within a totalitarian society, even if they are continually led to believe otherwise. Thus, totalitarian followers often become unthinking and reckless in what they eventually end up doing, which contributes not only to the hostile clashes that fascists have with liberal society, but also in how the Jewish Holocaust and the Bolshevik Gulags got to be as soul-crushing as they were.
– Margaret Atwood
My first Atwood book read in full. A literary analysis on the nature of monetary systems within early Victorian capitalism. The text version of her CBC Radio Massey lecture, though I found it to be a somewhat slow and difficult read when compared to Atwood's own smooth and well-paced performance.
– Hal Niedzviecki
Chance led me to actually be able to meet this author in person once. However, my ultimate opinion of The Peep Diaries is that even though it captured a particular zeitgeist of the moment at which Web 2.0 social networking first broke the scene proper, as well as the early confusions and social ramifications they presented, its final chapters make fully clear that its writing researched a whole lot less than it ultimately led on. Perhaps it's because this book's home is more within that of social nonfiction writing and I was expecting a more technical document.
– Ian Bogost
Bogost is probably the most prominent ludology critic out there right now, but that doesn't necessarily make him the greatest. Part of that comes with being one of the first in the field, and his earlier works that I have read -- such as Unit Operations -- didn't feel all that successful in their aims. Persuasive Games is the first of his works that succeeds in its own thesis due to its more limited scope. Still, it's a very terse and didactic text, and at times could probably have stood to be a little more critical of the subject matter (advertising) that it inspected. Still though, I admire Bogost enough for his "OAuth of Fealty" which he called a certain social networking API "a shape-shifting, chimeric shadow of suffering and despair, a cruel joke perpetrated upon honest men and women at the brutish whim of bloodthirsty sociopaths sick with bilious greed and absent mercy or decency."
– Daniel B. Klein
A humourist's introduction to philosophy. Was a good read back in high school, but somewhat forgettable in the long run. A long-time reader of philosophy probably won't get all that much out of it, as it was clearly written purely for fresh eyes and does not delve into more modern lines of philosophical thought.
– Mat Buckland
My first book on game AI agents. Covers most basic items from pathfinding, finite state machines, fuzzy logic, to stack-based goal processing. The code it offers is not readily portable, however, and I believe I might also have found another text (or at least the PDF of one) that goes over all these topics as well as more specialized ones such as AI for board games. Those who wish to program mostly action games might find this book sufficient to their purposes, though.
– Joel Feinberg
A collection of annotated basic philosophical texts, ranging from the topics of religious belief, the limits of human knowledge, determinism, and morality. Starts from Aristotle and Plato and runs the gambit to more modern schools of thought. An old and dusty tome I pilfered from a cousin of mine before she moved out west to complete her PhD. (And to think she was just going to throw it away!) While it covers a lot of basic ground in philosophy, and from a very wide array of sources, it is not quite a beginner text nor an advanced one. I would not recommend this specific text, but am sure ones similar enough to it exist out there somewhere as a nice compendium.
– George Orwell
Orwell is most well-known for his fiction, but this book was is a work of essay and journalism reportage that was originally commissioned by a politically leftist book club, and later rejected and outright censored by the same politically leftist book club. Its first half is a gritty and realistic depiction of British working class life during the hardest moments of the great depression. The second half is a brutally honest assessment on the state of the political left of the day, and how the movement of communism had devolved into mere ideology, isolating itself from the very proletariat it wanted so dearly to realize the hopes of. Reading Wigan Pier with a historical viewpoint, it's not difficult to see that history has been advancing to a clearly progressive agenda of some kind, even if the route is not always through clearly defined left-wing or right-wing paths. There is a comfort in that, but a dangerous one that risks complacency.
– Kirstie Ball, Kevin D. Haggerty, David Lyon (Editors)
I heard my university created a course on surveillance studies in the year after my undergrad, so I tracked some of the material down. It was a strange read, giving intellectual rigour to what I always suspected was the case. (Such is both the love and the mania of my alma mater.)
To summarize: surveillance is a form of persuasion born of power relations. It is the continued transcribing of arbitrary information about any subject into an equally arbitrary form of media, meant to persuade a given outcome in favour of the persons doing the transcription. On the side of the powerful, they describe this act as giving "security" -- a sense of entrenchment of their own position within the power hierarchy, rightfully earned or not. On the side of the non-powered, surveillance is not a symbol of security but instead a symbol of mistrust; which in turn breeds malcontent and resentment, further justifying the need for "security" on the part of the powerful. It shouldn't surprise anyone that the subject of surveillance is often targeted at the less powerful in society: political opponents, protest groups, racialized peoples, children (of any social status), even welfare -- which until now I would've considered the only moral component of the State -- was at some point wholly used an apparatus of social control.
However, there were some items that I was expecting this anthology to mention, but didn't. No mention of security theatre, even though the chapter on the proliferation of British CCTV described it perfectly. My thoughts also turned to Parkinson's Law -- that adage about the uncontrolled growth of bureaucracies when agents of power are more comfortable creating subordinates instead of possible rivals -- wondering how that sphere of thought hasn't had any reckoning with the similar growth of surveillance systems. I've heard it said that when the American NSA/FBI or the Canadian CSIS/CSE attempts to interview people for information about any given subject, the usual “reward” for providing as much information as possible is just more visits from the intelligence agencies requesting even more information. There is also the idea in economics of Ricardian Vice, in how what profiling systems may deduce about a person can never fully apply to complex being that inspired it. Surveillance studies is still a relatively new field, and if its scholarship can give a label which encompasses these disparate vices, we would be better at identifying runaway or self-justifying surveillance where it occurs. It could also gain a political edge! The question "does your administrator panel over-emphasize highly intrusive and ultimately meaningless user data?" could easily be equivocated out of. Changing it to "does your administrator panel suffer from [Zuckerbergian Vice]?" demands action and further interest.
– René Girard
Religious school is only a good idea on paper. While it was my only means of learning Christian thought at all, by the same method it dulled, no matter how much I wished otherwise. Not just mere melancholy whenever one's romantic notions of ethics and morals must endure the slings of a vulgar and hypocritical world, but a thing repeated too often for fifteen years straight can take any once-special meaning and rend it nonsense. Soon, I looked at biblical stories as like formulae presented in math class: things other people easily understood, but I couldn't.
Eventually there came the secular scholars who helped me reached "an" understanding of the Old Testament, where I could look upon it again and no longer feel a sense of disgust or immense loss. (... if only at an arm's length.) René Girard, too, was my delayed equivalent for the Gospels; but while they no longer ring hollow, the sense of loss prevails.
He's somewhat difficult to get into – even I was only introduced to him through other sources – taking a good 50 pages before you have any idea what he is talking about. Girard lives in an unfortunate quadruple-bind: a man of profound faith, and a humanities scholar in the fine arts, trying to make an actual scientifically-valid hypothesis, about the sociological machinations of entirely religious subject matter. The very definition of a fool's errand, but like other Chomsky-esque iconoclasts, the sheer amount of supporting evidence would make the most adamant skeptic capitulate some small amount through gritted teeth. It's still annoying, though. He always fervently goes through various null-hypotheses at times when I'd much rather him just get to the point. Once he even claimed some assertions are not fully falsifiable, because the suppositions required would end up undoing the entire basis of the scientific process – and that the mere existence of the scientific method is further evidence of his point. (A claim, while technically true in that instance, is the most bullshit thing I have ever heard.)
At risk of confirmation bias, maybe I only weathered this book because I was already predisposed to the general kind of point he argues. More than that, in my search for understanding, Girard not only further demystified my own sense of betrayal against Christianity, but also succeeded in ruining my opinions of all possible mythologies from any religion or religion-like-thing whatsoever. He is a master interpreter, and managed to find what might possibly be the seed of all culture; but it is an explanation so thorough, it honestly frightens me. I don't think I really wished to know how that particular sausage got made.
– Tanya Talaga
This book is a chronicle of a series of mysterious deaths, by now far more than just seven, which first began involving teenagers living in the city of Thunder Bay. The seeming heart of the matter trembles with questions of racism, suffered by the children of Canada’s indigenous populations from the descendants of white colonizers and their institutional supremacy. Talaga may have at least attempted to write another hackneyed salve against the common social and historical injustices of the day, but to openly accept this book as only that would ignore something far more sinister at hand. When one follows the details that Talaga lays out, the question is less about what historical forces made these indigenous youth repeatedly succumb to mysterious circumstance, and more about where along the way they started being openly hunted by it.
Throughout Canada’s near-north, various isolated villages still exist as traditional aboriginal lands; which these days usually means some combination of subsistence agriculture, what scant employment or capital development they may or may not posses, and whatever federal government assistance can cover the gaps when the others fail. What more they could hope to gain is limited by what little they already have, as the only contact to the outside world is bottle-necked by the singular route in, such as expensive charter plane services which add to the cost of everything else. Food insecurity is rife, as are issues with power generation and water sanitation. Making matters worse is the lingering legacy of Canada’s “residential school” system, a democidal construct enacted by both the government and private religious organizations to “beat the indian out” of entire generations of young children, forcefully depriving whole populations of the culture that once made life on traditional lands tenable – leaving in its place a dire wake of extreme poverty and chronic mental illness.
These communities are desperate to break free of the chains of history, but to do so means to rely on resources they’ve been expressly denied – namely; advanced education, technical know-how, and entrepreneurial insight. This is no easy task for bands and northern villages whose resources are so scant that operating an elementary school would exhaust supply, and often does. Once children need education past the eighth grade, they’re forced to leave the only home they’ve ever known. Their destination was Thunder Bay, at the Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School. DFC was founded in 02000 by the Nishnabe Educational Council, in an attempt to deal with this exact problem. It seemed like a perverse solution, especially given how fresh the horror of residential schools were in the memory of many, but NNEC’s hope was that if they could manage a boarding school with centralized resources largely by and for their own, they would avoid the pitfalls of the past and provide their children with necessary tools for the success that indigenous communities so desperately required.
Six months into the school’s first operating year, tragedy struck. Jethro Anderson, a young student from the remote community of Kasabonika Lake, was drowned in the Kaministiquia River in the dead of winter. The death reeled the once-hopeful school and they scrambled to recover. They almost did. Five years later, 02005, Curran Strang of Pikangikum would meet the same fate, washed up on the shore of the Kam. And again in 02007, Reggie Bushie of Poplar Hill, washed up on the shore of the Kam. And again, 02009, Kyle Morriseau of Keewaywin, on the shore of the Kam. And again, 02011, Jordan Wabasse of Webequie, on the shore of the Kam. Yet more have since occurred, and the circumstances regarding their deaths have gone cold.
Talaga’s angle in this subject is largely a human interest story, with each tragedy individually wrought. I was first drawn to it for what I admit may have been a regrettable act of vulture culture. It all seemed so prime to me, the idea of a young person having grown up in the woods, like some acerbically twisted Garden of Eden, only to be suddenly thrown south to the rest of society and all the modern culture it demands. All the necessary elements of a good story were there. How innocently they would get off the plane and excitedly rush for the airport’s Timmie cart, looking upon things so common as timbits and machine-made iced cappuccinos as if they were these rare and delectable treats. They considered the Ontarian industrial backwater of Thunder Bay as “the big city”, an exciting place where seemingly everything could be found. They were utterly unprepared for the change in environment; so much so, the school needed to teach its fifteen-year-old students about things so basic as the walk signal at traffic lights and looking both ways before crossing the street. ... but things aren’t as forgiving as even the already depressed world of CanLit would have it. There are no grand adventures or comedic hi-jinks to follow in real life, and even less liberal hope for innate individualistic strength against the manufactured hardships of mass society. Unmoored, they are simply cast from one type of misery to another, and then they die.
Jethro Anderson’s case is the oldest of its type, and thus has the most definitive conclusions. DFC was still new at the time, all of the students coming in from away, unfamiliar with the city and each other. They also brought with them the emotional baggage from their original homes, and with it came indulgent attempts at self-medication. Jethro’s disappearance was quick and sudden, following a particular night of after-school debauchery at a beachside park along the Kam. The cast of characters for this detective play doesn’t have to reach far, and Talaga’s own investigation points to how the perpetrator of Anderson’s possible manslaughter was also another DFC student. Even the Thunder Bay Police Service’s seeming incompetence as first responders could follow from a type of logic. Boarding students younger than post-secondary are not common within any other part of southern Canada. What legal precedents would they posses to act upon an incident involving a young child, alone in a foreign place with no immediately available family or legal kin? Living independently at a far earlier age than your own age-of-majority laws could reasonably allow? While still somehow being perfectly compliant with all available truancy laws? It was all weird, and definitely a first.
... but by the time of the second and third disappearance, things start going off the rails. Even by the most charitable interpretation of events, Anderson’s case set an unfortunate “drunken indian” stereotype for all other incidents regarding boarding students at DFC, no matter how things turned towards the uncanny. The school put strict rules in place to prevent the same thing from happening again, which the students, by now fearing for their lives, dutifully followed. Yet the incidents not only continued, but began to increase with frequency. Each time it happened, the TBPS was quick to label the deaths “accidental” with “no foul play suspected” mere hours after the recovery of the bodies. Furthermore, some of the drowning victims beggared belief. Many of these students grew up in the woods of northern Ontario, and were themselves very experienced swimmers, with fishing as part of their traditional land’s subsistence agriculture. Why, the victim’s families often asked, would they wait until moving to Thunder Bay to suddenly decide to drown?
Soon, in whatever job it was tasked with, the river made a few mistakes. In 02008, DFC student Darryl Kakekayash was on his way back to his boarding house after seeing a movie with a few friends, no alcohol involved, when he was suddenly assailed by a group of three older white men. After a quick and nonsensical interrogation about the criminal gang the Native Syndicate, he was severely beaten and thrown into the river. Against all odds, he managed to pull himself ashore, and wandered the streets with soaked clothing in the winter cold until eventually finding a bus driver to beg for help. Despite reporting it to the police with the full backing of DFC, nobody was charged for the assault. Darryl’s parents responded by withdrawing him from Thunder Bay, deeming the entire city – and their child’s hope for education – no longer worth the risk. Kakekayash wasn't quite the first who survived a drowning attempt, there were two others in the year previous, but he was the first one who was sober when it happened and could remember everything.
By the time Talaga’s chronicle ends, drownings in the Kaministiquia reached a fever pitch. Beyond 02011, they were no longer simply about teenagers or the DFC, with victims ranging from young toddlers to even older men, whose debit cards were mysteriously still in use hours after the recovery of the bodies. A constant line throughout was the indifference of the police, classifying these deaths all as accidents and “non-criminal”. So legendary was their complete lack of willpower to investigate that entire first nation communities had to resort to flying in whole populations of their remote villages to Thunder Bay at the slightest hint of a possible missing person, just to act as the search parties which the TBPS would not provide. The anger sparked over their reaction to what eventually came to be known as the seven fallen feathers would end up creating multiple inquests and tribunals, most noteworthy of which would be two years after this book’s publication in 02018 by the Office of the Independent Police Review Director. It was a well-researched, but somehow poorly written report, which was at least able to handle the less controversial aspects of the issue. The primary call was giving the provincial coroner’s office more resources to service northern Ontario, instead of requiring the police to prioritize what had to be sent to the main office in the capitol against what shouldn’t. For various reasons, only the least of which being the sudden election of a new provincial government whose prime directive seems to be the deliberate infliction of suffering onto vulnerable peoples, I doubt much will come of it. “Writing a report” is a particularly Canadian way of pretending to do something about a problem, while still doing nothing to solve it.
Amidst all of these rather suspect circumstances are things made all the more strange by their total lack of it. The death of Robyn Harper, as one of the seven fallen feathers of DFC, stands juxtaposed to the rest in how perfectly benign it seems. There is no mystery to how she died. A combination of eyewitness testimony and surveillance footage places her at every point up until her apparent overdose – notably on the floor of her boarding house, and not at the bottom of the river. Robyn’s grim, but otherwise straightforward fate, highlights just how unusual the other disappearances are. While there certainly were plenty of underestimations along the way, DFC was well aware of the issues their students would face, especially as time went on and the limitations of their particular schooling system became more apparent. As twisted as it was, there was a kind of normal that might have otherwise existed for the boarders of Thunder Bay – a normal which logically followed from the impoverished realities of northern Ontario and the fallout from the residential school system. Yet at no point within that normal would there be any need or room for death by River Kam.
If it seems grating that I should be spending all this effort to spoil what might be the rather obvious dramatic tension of this book, I must assure you that I am not. The discrepancies I repeat are ones that Talaga can only flatly state the facts of and move on, almost as the police did. All of it in subtext, impossible to miss, yet required to ignore. I don’t think Talaga is blowing these dogwhistles because she has some hidden agenda; the obvious conclusion is just one that she, legally, cannot state. As a journalist, she can only report on what testimony is given to her and what already exists in the public record. Even if she was going out of her way to bring in voices that were shunned from the limited Canadian mainstream, a reporter she nonetheless remains. She does not represent in this book anyone who wouldn’t openly speak to her about this topic, and theirs is a conspicuous absence. The result can only really be an incomplete look upon events, clearly biased to the stubborn and disbelieving perspectives of jilted families who were begging to speak to anyone out of their unresolved grief. From it, the fatigued conclusions she does reach about the unreconciled injustices of history are the only conclusions one could possibly reach with any degree of verifiable safety, no matter how much the lingering dread remains of “what if it is something much worse?”
By simply saying that it is a systemic problem, one that might be fixed through good policy and capital-R Reconciliation, Talaga may be letting the ones who did this to the fallen feathers off the hook. It’s through this that I cynically account for how popular this book briefly became with the small, insular, majority-white Canadian media mainstream. There are others who are not so kind. Around the same time this book was making the rounds, another Anishinaabe writer – Ryan McMahon – also produced some too-short documentaries on the mysterious deaths and Thunder Bay: documentaries which were definitely heard by many at least once, but understandably not promoted thereafter. His work was more openly accusative, not stopping to record the horribly racist things that supposedly-well-adjusted white people freely gossiped of DFC students, but also diving into the issues of corruption in Thunder Bay municipal governance using muckraking and other underhanded tactics. His work was better able to capture the institutional rot which the more above-the-line Talaga could only vaguely gesture at. For McMahon, Thunder Bay isn’t a “broken” machine with the deaths of indigenous Canadians as an unfortunate malfunction of complex historical issues, but rather that Thunder Bay is working perfectly as designed, a meat grinder which shamelessly celebrates the attempted genocides of the past. The white supremacy of “old-stock” Thunder Bay is not simply some sociological oversight in the institutional design of an otherwise egalitarian city, but a very real flow of money and power which frames the “criminality” of fly-in students as possible threats to their own well-protected criminal enterprises. What follows is an aggressive and sophistic form of interracial gang warfare where simply not knowing that you were a member of the notorious Native Syndicate is no excuse for still being a member of the notorious Native Syndicate. Then they cap you and dispose of your body; the police were paid off in advance.
I had completely forgotten I had even read this book. The only reason I’m listing it here on my shelf was because I had my memory so rudely jogged. Thunder Bay was cited in a 02017 article from The Walrus about the death of Marlan Chookomolin, another fly-in student who was found badly beaten on an isolated trail in the city’s north end before he died in hospital. Fortunately, there was a witness to what happened in Kory Campbell, Marlan’s ex-girlfriend. She came in tears to the family, saying she knew who did it and provided the name of the perpetrator. The Chookomolins filed her statement to the TBPS lead investigator without telling anyone else, but it was dismissed out-of-hand. “People are just talking when they’re drinking,” said the detective. Two days later, Kory herself was found dead. By this point, rumours were already circulating online that there was a serial killer in Thunder Bay targeting First Nations youth, and even more that the police may be somehow in on it. It all came rushing back to me then, though unfortunately re-contextualized from your everyday tract on social justice, into a true crime novel who went to the presses all too soon. Maybe it’s entirely within my own imagination, as if through the amazing powers of confirmation bias, I, the ineffectual moron, might happen upon the unique circumstance could restore order for both native and white Canada alike – as if that helps! (It doesn’t.)
– Naomi Klein
A long work of journalism covering a good many deal of topics relating to the modern political phenomena known as either "neoliberalism" or "neoconservatism", depending on what direction you come from, which largely has roots originating from the Chicago School of Economics under the aegis of Milton Friedman. After the unfortunate success of her previous book, Klein wrote in a much harsher manner, which made reading this book – despite my previous respect for her writing – so outright depressing that I could not finish it in full. I've heard other readers only recommend this book to those wishing to "test the waters of the political left", but I am honestly unsure if that is truly a proper description for Klein's writing. The Shock Doctrine is ultimately a continuation and correction of No Logo, in the sense that it no longer confuses the most visible components of commercial power from the more subtle actual operations of power itself.
– Steve Hewitt
Possibly the prequel to Lisa Stampinsky’s Disciplining Terror that I’m not entirely sure I even wanted. Hewitt’s historiography of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police struck the very same chords of being both humourous and incredibly sad when it came to giving the “counter-subversion” activities of Canada’s first intelligence service an objective eye.
The story Hewitt weaves throughout his historical reconstruction is one of anti-intellectualism and right-wing fanaticism. During and in the lead-up to the Cold War, anti-communism was the raison d’être of the RCMP following the Winnipeg General Strike in its formative years. Aside from being in the thrall of their political masters in the Canadian government who were normally anti-labour during the Gilded Age; the general makeup of many communist parties at the time was primarily working-class minorities such as Ukrainians and Jews, giving racist motivations to the otherwise equally working-class mounties. But while they had no way knowing it at the time, anti-communism involved chasing a dying star. Their constant search for communists well into the 01960’s and beyond ended up leaving them wholly unprepared for dealing problems with that were fully Canadian in source. (Such as Quebec separatism, which they erroneously attributed to communist influence despite all other evidence presented before them.)
Even as the numbers of the actual remaining communists in Canada dwindled, to the point where there was practically none left by the agency’s own reports, the pursuit of communists never dialled down once. The loose and malleable threat of communism and subversion was used as ideological (and hierarchical) justification for whatever the RCMP wanted to justify; supposedly for things that would be problematic if done without such pretence. The focus which Hewitt uses for this is the espionage and infiltration of Canadian universities, making students and teachers the target of government surveillance in the cause of anti-communism, generating thousands upon thousands of ultimately useless intelligence reports whose only practical purpose was as justification for generating even more useless intelligence reports. Only as the MacDonald Commission approached did the RCMP realize the complete lack of value these dossiers on university students had, and eventually reduced them from tens of thousands to only five hundred files; but not before also purging the record of their own wrongdoing in the “dirty tricks” era of RCMP counter-subversion – the scandalous interlude of intra-Canada espionage supposedly similar to the COINTELPRO activities of the American FBI. Even Hewitt’s archival research could only find scattered references due to how effectively the record was erased.
But missing puzzle pieces is ultimately not the weakest part of Hewitt’s work. It is the locus at which this book is focused; the counter-subversion efforts on Canadian Universities, and sometimes even high schools. Part of this is simply academic conceit; it was only through this angle that Hewitt even attained access to the historical records in the first place, but the question of “why on earth were they the draw of so much RCMP attention” never ends up getting a complete answer. The right-wing and authoritarian preferences of a militaristic and hierarchical organization such as the RCMP are well documented, but simply looking at it as a means of established authority asserting its will on its rebellious young is a thesis that doesn’t hold up. When the RCMP first turned its attention to Canadian schools in the 01920’s, the universities were often just as conservative as they were – if not moreso. The “progressive” nature of Canadian youth is not a historical constant, undergoing many ebbs and flows largely depending on the economic conditions at the time, which the RCMP often struggled to keep up with if they were paying attention at all. Political power, while also an influence in the general direction of anti-subversion, wasn’t the source of the concern either; many Canadian governments were often scandalized by the idea of spying on the nation’s own students and children, as many cabinet ministers were alumni of the same universities and often outright forbade the RCMP from continuing this work. (Orders which the RCMP went through considerable effort to ignore.) Every time the government and judiciary did regress on those regulations, it was always at the pleading request of the RCMP, meaning the need and requirement to keep monitoring universities was purely a need that came from within the RCMP itself.
The similarities between Hewitt and Stampinsky are numerous, perhaps especially when it comes to their thoughts on the politics of anti-knowledge, but there is one crucial difference between them. Stampinsky sees terrorism studies’ inability to come to a proper definition as a major problem for the security institutions who rely on it, as it leaves them prone for interior actors to influence them in undue ways that only serve to further individual interests and undermine security as a whole. Stampinsky sees this as a weakness to be overcome if governments wish to deal with an otherwise legitimate problem; yet Hewitt argues that this is not a bug, but a feature. The RCMP saw communism as a form of “make work project.” Each mountie was working to further their own careers within the hierarchical organization: catch the bad guy, be the hero, get the promotion. The problem was that the actual supply of bad guys was merely a fraction of the need which required them, which caused the RCMP to go out and invent communist influence where none likely existed in order to serve their own ends. And in the cases where a lot of counter-subversion work was invested, but no result could be observed, anti-communist rhetoric was just one way of “covering their asses” from rebuke. Younger adults and vulnerable peoples were simply one of the prime targets for seeking out involuntary actors to play the part of the communist, as they would’ve had less means of recourse from the destruction of their lives should the mountie’s own career advancement end up actually successful. (Perhaps the most famous cases of this in recent times is the Supreme Court of British Columbia’s case Rex vs. Nutall.)
The only point at which the “need” to target universities made any sense was at the very beginning of it all. When the RCMP was formed, university education was still the purview of the social elite and had not yet been democratized to the larger population. Due to how low their wages were, the mounties could not afford it for either themselves or their children. In contrast to their American counterparts, the mounties who themselves held degrees were the smallest part of the force, and were the slowest to grow. Any time they had to interface with Canadian universities was fraught with frustration. They struggled with the complexity of the material and interpreted some hidden malice in the things they did not understand. They congregated their subversion efforts in the lighter subjects of the humanities and political science, simply because the technical requirements of the sciences and mathematics would’ve blown their covers for all to see. Even later on in the counter-cultural revolutions of the 01960’s, the undercover police saw in the students a level of freedom which they could not enjoy in their own lives from belonging to a hierarchical organization. Their documents frequently warned of the subversives working to “undermine” the “pillars of government” they were at once a part of, yet disowned from; thus they worked to undermine those same “pillars” of government on their own terms, in the supposed protection of a government they cared for, but cared not for them. Envy alone is not what motivated the RCMP to bully students and teachers as they did, but it was what impassioned it to become as bad it was.
– Marshall McLuhan
There are many who believe that McLuhan was a genius, and that this fundamental text was the one that took the wild and unruly new world of mass media into proper context. These people are liars. I was warned to be wary of McLuhan from one of my first media professors, specifically the one who was a bit of a black sheep among both the university faculty and even the students. He said that McLuhan might still be considered the founding scholar of the field, but he in life he was naught but a charlatan, and one of the first so-called "experts" to be co-opted into the mainstream media system. However, the reason I arrived at this conclusion about McLuhan on my own had less to do with charlatanism and more to do with the fact that there is simply nothing there to truly be understood. This book, written at the height of his popularity, contains numerous theories, none of them supported by much if any evidence, most of them by now outclassed and outdated, continuing to serve no other purpose than to be catchy little one-liners to advertise the mostly-empty merits of mass broadcast media system. He was pressured into trying out many different ideas, and most them did not work for their intended purposes, and instead for other, murkier goals. A very dangerous text, and from what I can tell, the most of McLuhan's writing goes downhill from here. At least it was still useful as an aid for writing papers in university and as a vantage point for its own historical understanding.
– Anne Elizabeth Moore
A book clearly written in response to the horrible wake generated by Naomi Klein's No Logo, and interesting in that it is an independently written analysis on the exact process of co-optation from the cultural underground and into the mainstream media system, a process she describes as much more organic in practice than most artists tend to fear. This book led me to wonder what a possible theory of cultural capture could exist within the world of independent art, similar to the way political science and public governance must deal with the issue of regulatory capture in law. Also covers media homogenization and corporate consolidation to a degree, including various discussions on the nature of artistry versus intellectual property.
Of the books that I had read following in Klein's lead, this was the book which turned out to be closest to what I was looking for. That is perhaps because it was written as a direct response to the corporate recuperation of Klein's work. The book was not really as theory-based as I was used to at the time, but it was because of that I was able to divine the closest thing to an answer to the fury that No Logo had given me, even if Moore herself wasn't the one to directly articulate it.
– Anthony DiMaggio
A more modern update of the Chomsky-Herman propaganda model as seen through the lens of the George W. Bush and Barack Obama incursions into the middle east during the early to mid 02000's, showing in the least that the propaganda model is still alive and well, but if only somewhat of an easy target, as the common myth that most of the information leading to the middle-eastern invasions were mostly lies was widespread by that point already. It is interesting for its notable (but somewhat limited) studies into how when juggling between the positions of powered interests and greater public opinion, mainstream media systems or elite media systems will tend to lag behind the representation of greater public opinion by at least two to four years, but it could not conclude if this was due to active suppression by powerful interests, or if it was just the slow-moving inertia of a large and disperse system. It also solidifies the propaganda model as a system of analysis from without, rather than from within. I think as the currently-limited scholarship into the public relations industry begins to take off, it will eventually be able to reveal and thus diminish the effectiveness of government media control in a much more wholesale way than the pure-bred Chomskyists could accomplish on their own. Fortunately, the Chomsky school of media criticism might retain a certain level of favouritism that the new school could never muster, simply because public relations scholarship risks becoming as untrustworthy as the thing it inspects.
– Robert E. Babe
When I first saw the cover of this of this hundred-and-ten dollar academic textbook, I felt personally called out. The title alone could be a legal indictment to some horrible and grotesque crime I have no honest memory of, yet wouldn't doubt I still did. The book itself is possibly the pristine output of a demented genetic-learning algorithm trained with full access to the very contents of my mind, all in the sole attempt to fleece me of what little money already I had.
I was in a unique position during my undergrad to become very amenable to the works of Marshall McLuhan. I had each foot in two entirely separate graves; one in the corrupt engineering of computer science and the other in the vivid-but-weak chaos of the humanities. My status as a drifter meant I was never fully accepted as a “proper student” by either one, and media studies was the only way I could achieve any form of synergy between the two realms, especially as it applied to the then-still-unfolding world of digital media. However, while McLuhan was the nationally characteristic point of focus for the subject of media studies, the long-form destruction caused in the wake of the 02008 Recession made Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman more justifiably in vogue. While I always found Chomsky interesting on a personal level, to the point where I was never sure if I was reading Chomsky or if Chomsky was reading me, even then I could notice that Chomsky’s method of media study only ever yields fruit when dealing with systems of sufficient enough size and scale. In contrast, the McLuhan method allowed me to break things down to a level of pure technological consideration, where it would end up being more relevant to what I imagined my job as a programmer would be. Chomsky’s method was never truly about media in itself, but instead the social organization which occurs around it – which is just as important, if not moreso, but also something of much higher difficulty to affect practical change.
Because I had access to two entirely different methods of media study, I was always trying to find ways to compare the two, in an effort to match and distill the strengths of both. It was frustrating to me, back then, how the two would be taught in complete isolation of each other. Part of this was due to the completely different national origins of each school of thought, but another was the decades-long buildup of frustrations with McLuhan, who came to be seen as the unwitting handmaid of corporate mass media control. This would’ve never been a problem while McLuhan was still alive, but following the rise of neoliberalism in the 01980’s and the fallout from the 01996 Telecommunications Act which enabled the near-complete consolidation of power in western mainstream media, the knives have since come out. (The charge is only partly unfair; nothing in McLuhan's theory and academic work directly led to that result, but the overtly nonpolitical nature of his theory was used by actants in 01960's/01970's broadcast media systems to rout any other forms of analysis which would threaten their growing entrenchments.) Perhaps if I had studied at the elite Laurentian universities in downtown Toronto where he remained reverent things might have been different, but my lesser-off professors had branded McLuhan a charlatan, and I had to learn his methods mostly at my own near-heretical lonesome. In their view, Chomsky might have been crazy, sure, but at least Chomsky had never betrayed them in such a cruel manner.
This book was amazing to me, because it actually tried to do the comparative synthesis I had so longed for. The three figures of comparison are: the Nom Chom himself; Harold Innis, who was McLuhan’s predecessor and the one who actually had to do all of the heavy lifting in founding of the first school of Canadian media studies; and Wilbur Schramm, some nerd I’ve never heard of, and will continue to never hear of. The three of them exist as the stereotypical faces for each mode of communication studies that exists in North America: the theory-based Canadian school with Innis which I got into, the marketing-based American school with Schramm which everyone seems to despise, and the politics-n-activism-based “Contra-American” school with Chomsky, which I’m slowly beginning to think only ever came about because nobody ever liked the “actual” American school of communication studies.
The renewed historical interest in Harold Innis is something of a salvage job. The hope is that by focusing on Innis, as this book does, the method of work done by the Canadian school of communications might be saved from McLuhan’s lingering disrepute. McLuhan was the one who popularized the works of the then-ignored Innis, and brought his theories into mainstream acceptance. Sadly, this move was – politically speaking – recuperative. Many of those classic one-liner “McLuhanisms” such as “the media is the message” might have deftly adapted entire curricula into the bite-sized slogans of the television age, but brevity slaughtered all too much for the soul of wit. While the core functioning of the theory may have remained, the radical politics which was the source of that theory was nowhere to be found. Even more, that radical politics had its source in the frenzied search for the Canadian soul. This evidence of censorship is, in part, what fuels the accusations against McLuhan now.
But this is not to say that Innis was some forgotten hero of the academy, or even the “Chomsky of his time”, as this book would have it. This is not quite my first outing trying to learn about Innis, and I fear my opinion of him may have been set in advance. While this book’s dive into Innis’ politics was refreshing enough to bring some much-needed life into the very dry and morally-uncompassed field, the historical sidelining he eventually received was not wholly undeserved. He arrived on the scene as that most dire of things: an economist. For all of his claims of “dissent”, he was still gifted with the topmost position of the entire Canadian academy during a time when higher education and scientific development was still the sole purview of the rich and elite. This conservatism and right-wing blow-hardiness only turned from a boon into a liability when his bitterness over the treatment Canadian soldiers received from their British superiors during the First World War boiled over and made him take numerous positions against the hegemony of the British Empire. He rejected the European theories of economic function which were part and parcel of British hegemony, seeking out Canadian solutions for Canadian problems. When the economic establishment at large rejected his (for what it was worth, mostly correct) findings, he was desperate enough to instead repackage them into a new field entirely, which soon became media studies. Condemning the misrule of a corrupt empire and calling out the empty rhetoric of his own pseudo-scientific discipline were indeed the historically correct positions to have, but my suspicion is for the motive. His overall uselessness during the ravages of the Great Depression, a time when other economists like Keynesians and Marxists were at least trying to do something helpful to ordinary people, gives me the impression that he just wanted to become a big fish in the small pond that was Canada.
For all their purported similarities, Chomsky and Innis might pass each other in the night. It’s strange to realize that Innis is looked upon so favourably now, in both media and critical economics, due to how the political situation has so shifted that his original right-wing positions on the independence of the Canadian economy can retroactively become left-wing following the development of globalization and neoliberalism decades after his death. I even have my own fears that once Chomsky himself passes, the work he did on the propaganda model and the boundaries of acceptable debate – all originally done to highlight how leftism was systematically oppressed during the broadcast media age of the Cold War – would soon be repurposed to drive right-wing agendas and force into purview things that were originally sidelined out of populace discourse for damn-good reason. It’s an entirely unfounded fear, but given the current circumstances towards fascism, it’s one I still nervously carry. Even the economic origins of Canadian media theory are a source of frustration for me, as there are times when I very desperately want something a little more grounded-in-reality than mere axiomatic thought. I’ve carried this frustration for a long time now, that the thing I happen to rely on for the analysis of software design might be compromised by the very same original sin which corrupted other fields before it. Somewhat ironically, this was something that McLuhan’s censoring recuperation of Innis was actually able to help with.
But my semi-partisan whinging should not discount these figures of the past entirely. I’d like to think I am only doing this because, for lack of a better term, I care. Deeply so. We need them to be better, such that we can use them for better purposes. And the need is there.
... after all, so long as monsters like Wilbur Schramm and Edward Bernays exist, the weight on our shoulders will fall heavy.