Sunday, September 16, 2012

Bibliophile: Mother Theorist, Business Metrics, and Flying Penguins

What literature lurks in the hearts of men?  The library knows...

This is Bibliophile.

Here we are once again, going to a random university library, and briefly commenting on their newest and brightest books.  This week around, we'll be traveling to Maritimes, with the University of Prince Edward Island.  Now, as far as I can tell, they don't actually have a new books page, so we'll do the next best thing, and look for books published in 2012.  Hmm.  It seems their search function doesn't allow that, either.  You have to enter at least a subject, author, or title for the search to start.  All right: we'll do key words, starting with "philosophy."

Peeling potatoes or grinding lenses : Spinoza and young Wittgenstein converse on immanence and its logic / Aristides Baltas.
My knowledge on Wittgenstein is somewhat limited to what I learned about him in Logicomix, and that was really more about one of his "mentors," Bertrand Russell, than Wittgenstein, per se.  I started reading one of those "Cambridge Companion"-type books on him once, but didn't get very far.  And for Spinoza, I know even less, other than he's some European philosopher.  But I am not here because I know about the subjects; I'm here because I thought "peeling potatoes" was an interesting thing to put in a title.  The title comes from a quotation from Wittgenstein, where he declares that peeling potatoes is, for him, what grind lenses was for Spinoza, a way of distracting the body so the mind could think.  Baltas argues that there is a core similarity between the two's greater works, in that both believe on an immanence of logic, that, at the root, logic permeates the world in general, from language to God.  Baltas' method is a close reading of both texts, alongside a contextual situating in the period they were published.  I think you might get more from this book if you came into it knowing something about those two issues.  Personally, as it stands, I already have enough confusing European philosophers in my reading pile.  

Next key word: technology.

Sir James Dewar, 1842-1923 : a ruthless chemist/ John Rowlinson.
 I love the subtitle here.  It sounds like it should be a character description in a steam-punk play.  Dewar is probably best known for being the founding father of cryogenics, for his discovery of a method of freezing hydrogen.  He also invented one of the first applications of such technology, the thermos--which was apparently originally called the vacuum flask.  He was known for getting into heated contests with other scientists, and had a protracted patent battle with Alfred Nobel over the invention of explosive cordite.  Explosions, battles with other scientists, vaccum flasks, and cryogenics.  Seriously, this is a steam punk novel waiting to happen.  Actually seriously, I know a lot of these "science-master" type biographies get published, but I don't think I've ever read one.  It's a bit of an oversight on my part; the whole reason that science is accused of being ahistorical sometimes is that no one bothers to read books about its past when they do come out.  Judging purely by the title and Rowlinson's blurb on Amazon, this book has at least a bit of a sense of style behind it, so it may be worth a perusal.

Securing the Virtual Environment : How to Defend the Enterprise Against Attack / Davi Ottenheimer
I thought this was an interesting title, because while it's using siege and military rhetoric to discuss the Internet, it's rather vague on who or what we're protecting our digital domains from.  And the answer comes fairly quickly.  Essentially, it's a business book, explaining to would-be IT managers how to protect data from hacking or obtrusive snooping.  The author is the president of an online security firm called flyingpenguin.  According to flyingpenguin's site, there's an actual point to the name: first, it's based loosely on Linux developer Linus Torvalds' adoption of the flightless fowl for Linux's mascot.  Second, Ottenheimer read somewhere or other that a penguin can swim through water at great speed--in other words, it moved away from the traditional use of its wings, to find transportation in another medium.  And that's the metaphor Ottenheimer thought appropriate for an online security group.  Depending on one's perspective, that's either a slightly clever thing from a business that has a reputation for being humorless, or a slightly dumb thing that's of the usual sort that management types come up with that sounds better in concept than practice.  Your mileage may vary.

Multimodal signal processing : human interactions in meetings by Renals, Steve.
I lost a lot of my patience for multimodality when I read Gunther Kress' book on the subject for my comprehensive exams, but I tired to keep an open mind here.  And that intent lasted as long as it took me to read this sentence: " automatic analysis of the outputs of cameras and microphones in a meeting can make sense of what is happening - who spoke, what they said, whether there was an active discussion and who was dominant in it."  It's the quantitative approach to semiotics, and just thinking about it raises my humanities-based hackles.  It's not just the idea that you can systematically determine the value of a discussion--though that doesn't exactly put me in a very receptive frame of mind--it's what use this data could be put to.  Want  to fire Thompson?  Well, you don't need a real reason--all you need to do is demonstrate that he hasn't been sufficiently dominant in a set number of active discussions.  I'll admit, there's a fair chance I'm jumping to conclusions without a larger understanding of the book's purpose, but from the information provided, I find the intent here to be rather distasteful.  Although I have to admit, from a purely theoretical stance, it's interesting to analyze the motivating belief here, that a complete recording of a meeting is a better record and way of understanding that meeting than actually being present and playing a role in discussions.  It's systemized knowledge in opposition to contextual knowledge, happening right at the core of one of the bigger systems created in the past hundred years.  And it's another case of replacing human function with machine--you don't need someone to tell you what happened at the meeting, you get the computer to give you a summary it automatically compiles.  It sounds like it's missing the point of the meeting, which, hopefully, ideally, is the discussion of matters in order to generate meaningful discussion, a process that can't be entirely automated.  ...I have to say, it feels very odd to be put into a position where I'm defending the creative function of the business meeting.

...Technology is getting depressing.  Let's try "literature."  Hmm.  At 21 items, it's rather slim pickings.

Entanglements, or transmedial thinking about capture / Rey Chow.
This is an anthology of essays by Chow, which makes sense, especially when you read the list of  theorists she's evoking: pornography and Benjamin and Brecht;  Foucault and Deleuze on visibility and postcolonialism; Ranciere on art and cultural anthropology; Girard, mimetic violence, and identity politics; Arendt and Derrida on forgiveness in juxtaposition with a film be Lee Chang-dong.  There are a lot of different things going on here.  And that's the key to the title: Chow calls it an entanglement because it's subjects that have been bunched together not because of their common theme, but because of the disparity of their difference.  It's a concept that stands out, at least.  Judging by the descriptions of the essays in the introduction, there's going to be a lot of hopping around within them as well as between them; if you're up to it, though, she's at least talking about some very interesting things.  H.

Now, this wasn't quite the sort of literature I meant to turn up, so we'll try that again, with "fiction."  The result is... five.  I guess the University of PEI just isn't big on English studies.

The theorist's mother / Andrew Parker.
Well, it says fiction, but for all intents and purposes, this is a philosophy/theory book by any other name.  Parker wants to look at how the figure of the mother looms hidden in various 19th and 20th century big-name theorists.  His big focus in on Freud (the obvious choice) and Marx (okay, less obvious), but he's also looking at Lukács, Lacan, and Derrida.  His argument is that it's the elided mother that signifies the desire for origins and returning in their writing, even if they appear to ignore both.  If you're interested in the more classical versions of Marxism and psychoanalysis, then it would probably be a good book.  (Although personally, I'm not particularly interested in either.)  H.

Okay, we need to make a lateral move here.  From "fiction," let's go to "culture."  75 items.  That's better.

The myth of sex addiction / David J. Ley.  
This is one of those books where the author's subject and position is fairly evident straight from the title.  Ley thinks that sex addiction is not a medical condition, but a cultural belief system, sometimes supported by faith, conviction, and religious principles, and in fact constitutes an attack on sexuality.  He argues that we need to dismiss this view that labels male sexuality as dangerous and unhealthy, and hold people accountable for their behavior.  The phrasing here is particularly interesting:  "By labeling males as weak and powerless before the onslaught of desire and the churning tide of lust, we take away those things that men should live up to: personal responsibility; integrity; self-control; independence; accountability; self-motivation; honor; respect for self and others."  It reminds me of the way group therapy is portrayed in Fight Club: not as something healing or reformatory but something kind of girly and emasculating.  It strikes me that what's at stake here is less the myth of sex addiction and more differing stereotypes of masculinity.  (And while I'm on the subject: isn't there something sexist about defining sex addiction as a purely male affliction?--although that seems to be a claim the book's blurb makes, rather than the author himself.  Which raises another interesting issue: why is the publisher trying to sell the book based on notions of male sexuality, rather than book's actual focus?)  Personally, I'm not sure where I stand on the subject.  On the one hand, I do think that modern society has stretched the concept of addiction beyond the point where it's a useful term for addressing some health issues.  On the other hand, I know enough about modern health rhetoric to know how certain labels, like sex addict, can form or alter identity, and I certainly don't have the experience or knowledge personally to make a decision affecting someone else's identity on that level.  Incidentally, according to Amazon, people who bought this book have gone on to purchase "The Ethical Slut" and "G-Spot Orgasms and Female Ejaculations."  H.  (And perhaps more interesting, we've got "The Ethical Slut" too.)

Okay, that's enough writing for this time.  See y'all next week.

Later Days.

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