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Original Essays | September 17, 2014

Merritt Tierce: IMG Has My Husband Read It?

My first novel, Love Me Back, was published on September 16. Writing the book took seven years, and along the way three chapters were published in... Continue »


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Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations by Clay Shirky
Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations

CultureWars, September 16, 2008

The logic in Shirky’s vendetta against the professional (journalist) is symptomatic of a wider anti-elitist movement that can be characterised by the ‘wisdom of the crowds’ phenomenon (a term coined by James Surowiecki in his book by the same name). It goes that the sheer weight in numbers of people, opinions and choices will mean a triumph over the viewpoint of the expert, from journalists, and scientists to politicians. In the face of the online proliferation of ‘news’, the journalist is redundant when there are many others are better able to document events in a more responsive manner.

Hidden in the debate about social media is a belief that participation (or to report in the case of citizen’s journalism) is more important than a worked-out worldview, belief, or perspective. Participation is seen to encourage ‘authentic’ behaviour that trumps the professional’s viewpoint. Agenda-setting is old, elitist and unable to keep up. Instead, insights come from examining patterns of social behaviour that lead to better predictions of future decisions and trends. The wisdom comes from the crowd, but not because of their interrogation and debate. Ideas form in an unintended, bottom-up manner.

Put in these terms, social media is an expression of low horizons. When a fascination with the psychology of groups replaces political argument, we are in the midst of an era of intellectual retreat of seismic proportions. There can be no doubt that these social tools do enable us to organise and communicate more freely than ever before. But until we become less fascinated with group behaviour and let genuine purpose and content rise to the surface, the tools will continue to do all the talking. Contrary to Shirky’s belief, everything else won’t simply happen spontaneously.
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Granta: The Magazine of New Writing #102: Granta 102: The New Nature Writing by Jason Cowley
Granta: The Magazine of New Writing #102: Granta 102: The New Nature Writing

CultureWars, September 2, 2008

Cowley, to his credit, includes a crucial caveat in his specification: that the ‘writer (should) be present in the story’. Writers are thoroughly egocentric human beings after all, and unlike Astley’s apparent disgust at the ways humans dare use nature to talk all about themselves there is at least a tacit acceptance that we can, and should, have an active presence in the world we inhabit.

This is most evident in Kathleen Jamie’s Pathologies: A startling tour of our bodies (colourful interpretations of the nature of ‘Nature’ are one of the greatest pleasures on display). Inspired by the recent death of her mother, she visits a pathologist and gets taken on a detailed study of human anatomy, looking at its frailty and decay, finally getting to watch the whole deal in a ‘live’ autopsy.

Cowley says that through the local we can find ‘exoticism in the familiar, the extraordinary in the ordinary’. Power’s tale of moving to a condemned building in the Bronx and setting up a hippy nature refuge contains about as many clichés as you could hope: their delicate utopian dreams in constant battle with the property developer fascists (headed by Giuliani), bohemian living (junkies! Mexicans! A community theatre in the basement!), taking peyote from a Navajo medicine man, and the aren’t they so down to earth and yet have such a finely honed sense of humour comments of various passing eccentric Noo Yoikers. Exotic? It makes going to Thailand and getting really into Buddhism seem like Salammbô by comparison.

Perhaps the simile of the ‘Classic Combo’ is apt here: Granta 101 was the reliable favourite, filled with lots of tasty treats and still on the whole good for you. Granta 102 is the fad diet, grounded in Real Science and somehow different to all those other ones, which advertises itself on the subtext that by following it you will be better (morally and physically) than those boring, die-hard traditionalists.

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Mirror of the Arab World: Lebanon in Conflict
Mirror of the Arab World: Lebanon in Conflict

CultureWars, September 2, 2008

Some of Mackey’s observations are downright ridiculous. Consider: ‘It is the Bedouin who was the original Arab and it is the Bedouin who remains the true Arab’. Similar pronouncements are spread throughout the book. Although the language is less guarded than with other Western writers, it echoes the thoughts of those who employ a quasi-anthropological approach to the study of the Arab world and the rest of the ‘developing’ world. Rather than seeing the problems of those countries as a result of their immediate circumstances and in particular their relationship to modernity, many writers go searching for answers in the depths of history. It has become almost obligatory for every book about Middle Eastern politics to recount tales from the early years of Islam and conclude they have an immediate presence in the mind of modern-day Arabs.

Mackey adheres closely to that script. In the better written parts of the book she comes close to understanding the predicaments of the Arab world, but somehow fails to capitalise on those insights: ‘Even defined in terms of Arab culture, modernisation challenges Arab societies because it requires them to surrender their various forms of tribalism to the common identity required by the nation… In this failure to find a common identity, which can be achieved only through altering the patterns of the past, the Lebanese serve as a mirror of the Arabs’.

To a certain extent, the history of the Lebanese civil world could be seen in part and particularly in the early stages as the conflict between the politics of change and common aspirations against the enshrined confessional system and the hegemony of sectarian groups over political life. Several political parties involved in the conflict had managed to recruit members from across the religious divides and had an explicit aim in destroying the confessional system. Although this project ultimately failed, it represented for a brief moment the possibilities of progressive politics that transcend religious and ethnic divides.

The past behaviour of competing groups can only be characterised as political juvenility, constantly seeking outside intervention and mediation. What is quite apparent is that identity politics has come to the fore, while real politics recedes further back. In that, Lebanon is not so much the ‘mirror of the Arab world’ but multiculturalism taken to its ‘illogical’ end.
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Modern China: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) by Rana Mitter
Modern China: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

CultureWars, September 2, 2008

Mitter addresses himself to the question he clearly finds more interesting: is China modern? The difficulty is in deciding the criteria. The beginning of the book dealt with a vague mix of secularism, individualism, self-awareness and equality, but he’s aware it’s unsatisfactory to equate modernity with ‘the West’. This leads to some slightly contradictory conclusions. Mitter sees modernity during the Mao era, ‘This was the modern politics of the totalitarian state’; but also sees as an example of China’s modernisation that ‘China today is overall not a totalitarian state, nor a military junta, nor a state run at the personal whim of a dictator’. The Cultural Revolution, we are told, was meant to create a self-aware citizenry. But if ‘self-aware’ means being critical of your own actions, then the Cultural Revolution was one of the least self-aware periods of world history; and if it means knowing you’re part of a citizenry, then is this really part of being modern? The difficulty of settling on any fixed criteria means the chapter ‘Is Chinese Society Modern?’ drifts rather unstably from equality of the sexes, to the effects of war, to whether China is richer now than under Mao, to whether China is free, to self-improvement, to Taiwan, Hong Kong and overseas Chinese communities.

And so as to whether China is modern, it’s enough to say that to understand the modern world, we need to understand China. Rana Mitter’s book contains information galore and, despite its necessary omissions, will help many readers do just that.
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