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Henry

Yglesias on Obama

by Henry on April 26, 2017

Matthew Yglesias’s piece sharply criticizing Obama for taking a $400,000 speaker fee to talk at a conference organized by Cantor Fitzgerald is getting a lot of pushback. I find this a little startling – while I disagree with MY’s defense of centrism, the underlying argument – that there is something sleazy about former officials going on the speaker’s circuit for astronomical fees – seems so obviously right as to scarcely merit further discussion, let alone vigorous disagreement. [click to continue…]

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No Exit?

by Henry on April 25, 2017

 

One of the people who blurbed Walkaway enthusiastically is William Gibson, whose own most recent book, The Peripheral covers many of the same themes that Walkaway does. The rise of extreme inequality described by Piketty and others, as the super-rich become so different from everyone else as nearly to be a distinct species. Accelerating technological change so that there are no jobs, or only very bad ones, for most people. A post-industrial landscape, in which the wreckage of the industrial era provides valuable resources for those in the new era.

Yet the two books draw radically different conclusions from roughly similar premises. Gibson’s book is a dystopia, in which the rich are so powerful as to be, effectively, beyond challenge. The only possibilities for agency on the part of anyone else are in the interstices, the implied spaces within the structures of the internecine conflicts of the elites. Walkaway, in contrast, is a book about the beginnings of a utopia. The characters frequently quote variants of Alasdair Gray’s dictum that one should “work as if you lived in the early days of a better nation.” Above is a detail from a print by Gray, based on his frontispiece for Book Four of Lanark. It displays the forces through which the state, “foremost of the beasts of earth for pride,” maintains its domination, with the machineries of war to the left, and those of law and thought to the right. At the end of Walkaway, Doctorow’s characters live in a society which appear to have mostly escaped from both kinds of domination. [click to continue…]

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Cory Doctorow seminar

by Henry on April 25, 2017

Cory Doctorow’s new book, Walkaway, a novel, an argument and a utopia, all bound up into one, is out today. And we’re running a seminar on it. The participants.

  • Henry Farrell blogs at Crooked Timber.
  • Maria Farrell blogs at Crooked Timber.
  • John Holbo blogs at Crooked Timber.
  • Neville Morley is professor of classics and ancient history at Exeter.
  • Julia Powles is a prolific writer on privacy and technology, and a researcher at Cornell Tech.
  • Eric Rauchway blogs at Crooked Timber.
  • Belle Waring blogs at Crooked Timber.

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Fourteen years of Krauthammer days

by Henry on April 22, 2017

Today is the fourteenth anniversary of the day when Charles Krauthammer announced to the world:

Hans Blix had five months to find weapons. He found nothing. We’ve had five weeks. Come back to me in five months. If we haven’t found any, we will have a credibility problem.

It’s now been 168 months since that confident pronouncement – or, put differently, we’ve seen 33.6 Krauthammer Credibility Intervals come, and then go, without any sign of self-assessment, let alone personal acceptance of responsibility for his prominent cheerleading for a war that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths. Still out there opining.

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Ada Palmer seminar

by Henry on April 20, 2017

The seminar with Ada Palmer on Seven Surrenders and its prequel, Too Like the Lightning is now complete. Below, a list of the participants with links to their individual posts, to make it easier to keep everything together (a PDF will be forthcoming). All posts are available in reverse chronological order here. Comments should be open, for anyone who wants to talk about the seminar (or the books) as a whole.

The participants:

  • Ada Palmer is an Assistant Professor of Early Modern European History at the University of Chicago.

The Dystopian Question and Minorities of One [Response to Emrys and Gladstone]

Reappropriated Histories and a Different Set of Tools [Response to Morley and H. Farrell]

Unusual Experience and Second Hand Plato [Response to M. Farrell and Waring]

Not Nothing and Speculating Late [Response to Holbo and Konstantinou

A Dialog on Narrative Voice, Complicity, and Intimacy [Dialogue with Jo Walton]

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Hugo Suggestions 2017

by Henry on March 16, 2017

Time again (seeing as nominations close in a couple of days), for Hugo nominations suggestions, or, more precisely, an excuse to briefly talk about books that I read in the f/sf genre last year and liked a lot.

Best Novel

  • Paul McAuley – Into Everywhere. People in the US don’t read McAuley nearly as much as they should. This, together with his Something Coming Through, is as good as straight science fiction gets these days. I didn’t like M. John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract books nearly as much as his other work – these two books are less ambitious, but seem to me to capture better some of what Harrison was trying to do, in using near- and middle-far future science fiction to get at the tropes of consumer society. Sharp, drily funny if you read closely, and does for Childhood’s End what his Confluence books did for The Book of the New Sun. There is infinite hope, but not for us. If you haven’t read any McAuley, try his short story Reef, available for free online. If it gets on with you, the rest probably will too.
  • Dave Hutchinson – Europe in Winter. Again, I don’t think Hutchinson gets the attention he deserves in the US. But this – and the other two books before – are really quite brilliant about Europe, and England’s complicated attitudes to it. The first book, Europe in Autumn is still my favorite of the three, but this is extremely good too – spies, a Europe that has split up into hundreds of odd microstates, and an alternative universe in which the Home Counties have extended in a manner both sinister and avuncular to take over large parts of the globe.
  • Sofia Samatar – The Winged Histories. I really liked this for its combination of large scale politics and small scale personal history. It reminded me (despite differences in writing style, subject etc) of Maureen McHugh’s wonderful China Mountain Zhang in the interest that it takes in people’s lives.
  • Max Gladstone – Four Roads Cross. The latest in his Craft sequence of novels, which is available in its entirety for $12 on Kindle – a bargain that you probably won’t regret. Enormous fun, but also very interesting in its take on the politics of globalization (the previous book, Last First Snow very deliberately takes on the question of how the insights of James Scott’s Seeing Like a State could be transferred into a fantasy setting).

Also, two books that I don’t want to see nominated for Best Related Work, if only because they were both published in the UK in 2016, and US in 2017, and probably have better chances next year.

  • Edmund Gordon – The Invention of Angela Carter. I’ve loved Carter’s work since I first came across it – she’s one of the very few supserstars whom I would have loved to meet (I remember plotting as an undergraduate to go to a talk that she was going to give in Dublin; it was cancelled at short notice, because of what turned out to be her final illness). It’s surprising that we’ve had to wait so long for a biography, but this is a really quite wonderful one. It isn’t at all hagiographical (as the title suggests, she happily reinvented facts about herself and her family to come up with an identity that she felt she could get on with), but it conveys her strength, her intelligence, her contrariness and her warmth. I hadn’t realized that David Hume was such an influence on her work (not having read the novel that takes an epigraph from him), nor would I have ever suspected that William Trevor was an admirer of Carter’s work, given their differences of subject matter and style. If Carter wasn’t often formally identified as a genre writer, she was emphatically a fellow traveller, whose work both spoke to fantasy and borrowed from it.
  • Mark Fisher – The Weird and the Eerie. I only figured out who Mark Fisher was after he died last year. I’d read a couple of pieces he had written (especially his interview with Burial), and encountered many of his ideas at second hand, without ever properly realizing that there was a single person behind them. Now, I’m very sorry. This is a wonderful, odd, individual book, which brings together Alan Garner, the last series of Quatermass, M.R. James and others. I desperately want to argue with him, and write at him (it seems to me that his concept of the eerie is very helpful in understanding aspects of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell which isn’t nearly as cosy as it appears to the superficial glance), but can’t.

As always, feel free to carp, disagree and (especially) make other suggestions for books worth reading in comments.

De Sade, war, civil society

by Henry on March 8, 2017

The trouble with writing about the first two Terra Ignota books is knowing quite where to begin. They’re dense in ways that much modern science fiction is not. They engage with the existing literature and traditions, but quite unashamedly demand that readers abandon the usual reading protocols. If Gene Wolfe is one obvious point of reference (not only the New Sun books – Bridger seems to have stepped right out of The Eyeflash Miracles), the books are not in the Wolfeian tradition – they’re something of their own – counter, original, spare and strange. Not all of it worked for me, but what did work, worked very well indeed.

Palmer is an intellectual historian. It is a truism of historiography (more precisely – it was a truism when I studied it in graduate school two decades ago, and I hope it still is) that the ambition of studying history wie es eigentlich gewesen, as it actually happened, is both impossible and undesirable. Every age puts the travails of its predecessors to its own uses, taking up those parts that seem handy, wrenching them as needs be to fit into new machineries, and abandoning those pieces that cannot be made work. What seems to me entirely original in Palmer’s books is how she uses these processes of historical appropriations to build a bridge to a fictional future. Science fiction needs to build worlds that are sufficiently strange to seem alienating, but not so alienating as to be incomprehensible. As I read her (everything I say below may of course be wrong!) Palmer uses parallel misprisions of the Enlightenment to sustain the connection between the imagined 25th century she wants her readers to explore, and the actual 21st century that they inhabit. Both ages interpret and misinterpret the ideas of the Enlightenment to justify and explain a myriad of social institutions. However, they take up quite different parts of the Enlightenment and use them to quite different ends. Most obviously, Providence is far more important to Mycroft Canner (and his peers ??) than it is to us today. Carlyle is taken up for his Great Man theory, while his racism and curdled conservatism are forgotten. Canner’s role as a historian provides another bridge held up by misunderstandings – he explains more than he might explain to a contemporary, because he fancies himself to be writing for future generations, though in point of fact he is writing for the past.

There are many questions I’d like answers to. There are also aspects of the book that I had difficulties with – the plot – all elaborate machinations among a very few people who combine vast power with extreme ability – sometimes seems more a fiction composed by the Humanists of the book than the structure that should contain that fiction. Some, or all, of this is surely intentional – in the second book, one of the characters suggests that his story is as extravagant as that of the Count of Monte Cristo. Palmer – or Palmer’s narrator seems to be subjecting the matter of science fiction to older narrative forms. She also signals that the narrator, while seductive (Canner’s voice is extraordinary, especially when it is digressive) is not at all to be trusted. We’re left, Carlo Ginzburg-like, trying to decipher an entire and complex world whose existence we know of only through the deranged subjectivity of a decidedly odd individual. For me at least, a guide as to why Palmer has written the kind of story she has written would be extremely helpful. [click to continue…]

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Forthcoming seminars

by Henry on March 3, 2017

We’re publishing two book seminars in the very near future. The first is on Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders. That’ll be starting next week, on Seven Surrenders’ launch day. The second is on Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway – that will be happening in April, again when the book is launched. They should both be fun.

Russell Hardin has died

by Henry on February 26, 2017

Russell Hardin died last night. I’m not competent even to begin to assess his overall intellectual contribution. What I can do is talk about what his work meant for me. I read – like pretty well every political science graduate student of my generation, and others previous and since – his seminal book on collective action theory. But how I really got to know him was through his work on trust as an encapsulation of interest. Thanks to the kindness of Margaret Levi, I became involved in the project that she, Russell and Karen Cook were running on trust for the Russell Sage Foundation, and a larger orbit of left scholars interested in rational choice. It was the making of more or less everything that I’ve written since, both directly, and through the people it introduced me to. My dissertation and subsequent book were in large part applications of Russell’s ideas. The single cleanest paper I’ve written not only was a riff on Russell’s arguments, but came out of his suggestion that I should take up an off the cuff comment and develop it to see where it goes. He was far kinder to me than he needed to be.

There was a period at the University of Chicago when Russell, Adam Przeworski and Jon Elster were all teaching in the political science department, arguing with each other, and creating through their agreements and disagreements a vision of what the left should be. I think that vision still has an awful lot to say for it. Of Russell’s later work, the book I like the most is How Do You Know? It’s not as perfect in itself as his books on collective action and trust, but it’s quite characteristic of the ways in which (like Brian Barry) he mixed analytic philosophy with a very practical interest in concrete problems. The questions that he raises – of how our knowledge depends on social and collective structures that we do not really understand – seem very relevant now that many of these structures are behaving perversely or breaking down completely. He will be missed and remembered.

Kenneth Arrow has died

by Henry on February 22, 2017

Arrow was a wonderful economist and from all accounts that I’ve heard, a very good guy. Others are much better able to evaluate the technical contribution than I am. Still, It always gave me a little pleasure that the person who had co-discovered the foundational account of general equilibrium, and more than anyone else, had built the basics of social choice theory was a cheerful social democrat. My old co-supervisor, Colin Crouch, told me about the time that he met Arrow at a conference in the Vatican and wandered off together with him to chat about their bemusement at the odd life chances that had brought two left-wing Jewish boys together to roam the corridors of the Catholic Church’s sanctum sanctorum. Arrow was also a one-time Crooked Timber seminar participant – we’re lucky to have had him, and I’m glad of the contact, however slight and glancing, that editing the piece involved.

The Thousand Day Reich: Civil Society

by Henry on February 1, 2017

Over the next while, I want to write a bunch of posts looking at the Trump administration – and the worldwide surge of right wing populism more generally – through different lenses offered by different books. This may or may not be useful to other people – as much as anything I’m doing it to get my own thoughts in order about the condition we’re in, and the various possibilities for pushing back, using other people’s ideas as a starting point. First: civil society.

One way we can think of Trump and leaders like him is in terms of civil society. On the one hand, people like Daron Acemoglu argue that civil society is the last defense against Trump and his ilk.

This leaves us with the one true defense we have, which Hamilton, Madison, and Washington neither designed nor much approved of: civil society’s vigilance and protest. In fact, this is not unique to the United States. What is written in a constitution can take a nation only so far unless society is willing to act to protect it. Every constitutional design has its loopholes, and every age brings its new challenges, which even farsighted constitutional designers cannot anticipate.

The lack – and in fact active discouragement — of direct social participation in politics is the Achilles’ heel of most nascent democracies. Many leaders of newly emerging nations in the 20th century, who professed as their goal the foundation of a democratic regime, all but prevented the formation of civil society, free media, and bottom-up participation in politics; their only use for it was mobilizing core supporters as a defense against other leaders seeking to usurp or contest power. This strategy effectively condemned their democracies to permanent weakness.

On the other, Stephen K. Bannon, the eminence grise of the Trump administration, describes his fears of foreigners as follows:

Last November, for instance, Trump said he was concerned that foreign students attending Ivy League schools have to return home because of U.S. immigration laws. “We have to be careful of that, Steve. You know, we have to keep our talented people in this country,” Trump said. He paused. Bannon said, “Um.” “I think you agree with that,” Trump said. “Do you agree with that?” Bannon was hesitant. “When two-thirds or three-quarters of the CEOs in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or from Asia, I think . . . ” Bannon said, not finishing the sentence. “A country is more than an economy. We’re a civic society.”

Civil society is a notoriously loose term – Marx, Gramsci, Bobbio and a whole host of political theorists and writers in the 1990s mean very different things by it. So how can we make it useful? One good place to start is the work of Ernest Gellner. [click to continue…]

Trumpcare, in its majesty

by Henry on January 28, 2017

The NYT on the artful language of Republicans looking to repeal Obamacare.

Before Mr. Trump stepped into the debate with his call for “insurance for everybody,” Republicans were choosing their words with utmost caution: Their goal in replacing the health law was to guarantee “universal access,” they said, not necessarily universal coverage.

“We will give everyone access to affordable health care coverage,” Mr. Ryan said in early December when asked if Republicans had a plan to cover everyone.

… “No one who has coverage because of Obamacare today will lose that coverage,” Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, the chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, said on Jan. 10. … The congresswoman “didn’t deliver her remarks exactly as prepared,” the spokeswoman said. In the prepared remarks, Ms. McMorris Rodgers included an important qualification: “No one who has coverage because of Obamacare today will lose that coverage the day it’s repealed” — in the transition to a new market-oriented health care system.

… We’re all concerned, but it ain’t going to happen,” Mr. Cornyn said. He amplified the point, adding: “Nobody’s going to lose coverage. Obviously, people covered today will continue to be covered. And the hope is we’ll expand access. Right now 30 million people are not covered under Obamacare.” A spokesman for Mr. Cornyn said he “meant no one will lose access to coverage.”

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A term whose time has come round again.

by Henry on January 23, 2017

CBS News:

U.S. government sources tell CBS News that there is a sense of unease in the intelligence community after President Trump’s visit to CIA headquarters on Saturday. An official said the visit “made relations with the intelligence community worse” and described the visit as “uncomfortable.” Authorities are also pushing back against the perception that the CIA workforce was cheering for the president. They say the first three rows in front of the president were largely made up of supporters of Mr. Trump’s campaign.

The Encyclopedia Britannica (1911 edition):

CLAQUE (Fr. claquer, to clap the hands), an organized body of professional applauders in the French theatres. The hiring of persons to applaud dramatic performances was common in classical times, and the emperor Nero, when he acted, had his performance greeted by an encomium chanted by five thousand of his soldiers, who were called Augustals. The recollection of this gave the 16th-century French poet, Jean Daurat, an idea which has developed into the modern claque. Buying up a number of tickets for a performance of one of his plays, he distributed them gratuitously to those who promised publicly to express their approbation. It was not, however, till 1820 that a M. Sauton seriously undertook the systematization of the claque, and opened an office in Paris for the supply of claqueurs. These people are usually under a chef de claque, whose duty it is to judge where their efforts are needed and to start the demonstration of approval. This takes several forms. Thus there are commissaires, those who learn the piece by heart, and call the attention of their neighbours to its good points between the acts. The rieurs are those who laugh loudly at the jokes. The pleureurs, generally women, feign tears, by holding their handerkerchiefs to their eyes. The chatouilleurs keep the audience in in a good humour, while the bisseurs simply clap their hands and cry bis! bis! to secure encores.

Should President Trump finally decide to outsource this, along with everything else, there’s excellent precedent for a market-based private-sector solution.

2009

by Henry on January 20, 2017

DSC_0258 (1)

A photo I took back in 2009 (I lucked into a great ticket at the last moment when I ran into someone I’d known in Dublin who had a couple of extra, and no-one to give them to). Consider this an open thread on today, if you want to discuss it.

Empire Games

by Henry on January 16, 2017

Just finished an advance copy of Charles Stross’s Empire Games, which is coming out tomorrow – recommended (NB – no spoilers below, except for the most abject social science geeks). I haven’t gotten as much out of his last couple of Laundry Books as the earlier ones (I prefer the horror-to-jokeiness balance to be weighted a little more in favor of horror) but I liked this sequel to his earlier Merchant Princes books quite a bit.

Specifically, it returns to the economic-development-theory fan-service that Paul Krugman liked so much in the earlier books, and ramps it up. It’s certainly cheeky to have an organization called the Ministry of Intertemporal Technological Intelligence with the goal of furthering domestic development through grabbing great ideas from elsewhere (in this case parallel universes) and looking to use them to build up domestic production capacity without allowing dangerous foreign dependencies to develop. I suspect that the nice clockwork theory that this MITI is working on is going to start popping escapements all over the place in the sequels. See also: cross-dimensional deterrence theory. I’m not going to say any more, so as to avoid spoiling actual plot developments, but if you liked the earlier books, you’ll almost certainly like this one, and if you’re looking for social-science literate entertainment, you should read it too, but likely you should read the prequels first to avoid hopeless confusion.