October 8, 2006

My Reading

Category: Academic,Books/Articles — Biella @ 6:06 am

So people may be wondering, “How does Biella pass her time in the vast, desolate Canadian north?” Thankfully there are many things to do in Edmonton proper, but I have delved quite a bit into reading so I thought I would take a break and give small reviews of the books I have read or am reading as they are all quite good. I am trying to be more systematic about my reading habits so I am back to using citeulike. I am adding anything new I read and then as I go back to I have already read (for articles), I am adding them to the list also. I hope this pays off in the future!

I started the reading bash with a book that was recommended to me over a year ago while I was still in Chicago: The Fugitive’s Property: Law and the Poetics of Personhood as it deals with the bread and butter of my own work, intellectual property, liberalism, market capitalism, and American history. I found the introduction enlivening and was sufficiently interested to continue on. I think there is not a lot of innovative work in the field of intellectual property (only because it has been covered very well) and to bring together slavery/the fugitive person and intellectual property under the same analytical lens, seems productive. Best looks at how the legal treatment of the slave and that of IP, hold striking parallels for their highly “fugitive” (formal) nature, driven and intensified by the legal/market framework that makes personhood into property. There is a lot of good stuff in there (including a fantastic discussion on legal positivism) but in the end, the labor it took to sift through some really obtuse prose was too much for me. I can’t remember the last time I languished under the heavy weight of language that was far too ornate and under sentences that just lacked clarity. This was compounded by the fact that he assumed you knew a fair bit about slave history, which I did not. My drive also escaped me and while I hope to return to it later, I took a break and turned to more readbale material.

After such heavy linguistic ornateness, I needed an antidote, QUICK, and I knew exactly where to go: William Sewell and his book I had on my shelf also nearly for a year: The Logics of History. Along with being a first rate historian he is like that black instrument popularized in the 1980s by the likes of Herbie Hancock, and Brian Eno, he is a synthesizer with an amazing ability to write clearly. Being the synthesizer that he is, he is skilled at connecting the dots between various theoretical topics like event, structure, and agency, making the theoretical implications so crystal clear you feel happy to have entered into a field (the social sciences that is) that feels awfully arcane and pointless at times. I left Stehpen Best, which was like leaving a cluttered medieval castle and into a simply decorated room filled nothing with good theoretical feng shui (I think about writing in spatial terms more than ever). He just makes reading fun, even when the topics can be less than enthralling.

Many of the essays were published previously and I had read a number of them, such as his famous essay on structure and agency. What I appreciated along with the great writing, was that he takes serious the question of plurality of social life within the net of various social, economic, political determinants. So while he assumes the existence of structure (and turns Marshall Sahlins to establish), he also is quick to show that structure, like a cultural system, can only act as partial (and unexpected determinants of social life) because of the existence and presence of events (which is really Sahlins great masterful point) but more importantly because of the plurality of structures… This was perhaps on the the central motifs in my dissertation; while I placed hacking within the cultural lineage of liberalism, in no way is this the only cultural system that hackers operate through and with; they move through a cultural domain more intrinsic to their own praxis, not to mention other systems of value that reverberate more widely among the digerati… And it is this movement between social positions that allows for forms of reflexivity and social change. I primarily used Bakhtin to make this point but now I got Sewell to add to this mix.

Here is a nice passage from the book that makes this point:

I would argue that a multiple conception of structures would make subjects cultural creativity easier to explain. If the cultural structures by which subjectivities are formed are multiple, then so are the subjectivities… Because persons, symbols, and objects of cultural reference overlap between structural realms, structurally generated rules, emotions, categories, and senses of self can potentially be transposed from one situation to another. Indeed, if actors commonly have the experience of negotiating and renegotiating the relationships between noncongruent cultural structures, it follows they should have some intellectual distance on the structural categories themselves, that they should be able to view one set of cultural categories from the point of view of others that are differently organized, to compare and critizise categories and categorical logics, to work out ways of harmonization or odering the seemingly contradictory demands of different cultural schemes. A multiple conception of structure, consequently makes human creativity and reflection an integral element in the theory of history, not a philosophically prior metaphysical assumption. p. 213

And here is a more engaged review that is a little more critical than my very short comments.

As part of a reading group organized by my tireless supervisor, I am also reading The Cultural Locations of Disability written by two of the most prolific scholars in the field, Sharon Snyder and David Mitchell. Since I am a novice in field it is hard for me to judge the two chapters we have so far read but it is a total total total treat reading a book slowly with a group of other folks from a vast range of departments.

So far I appreciate the larger arguments presented in the introduction. For example, they point to two broad categories—capitalism and modernity/enlightenment– as driving forces in a new wave of obsession with the disabled. So while capitalism’s insistence on measuring the worth of humans through an abstract and actual ability to labor, marginalizes those who cannot offer their constant labor power (and makes them an “odd” cultural object), modernity–in its desire to march forward to the mysterious plane of progress, offers a technological promise to eradicate what it designates as deviant or primitive. As they nicely sum up: “In a culture that endlessly assures itself that it is on the verge of conquering Nature once and for all, along with its own “primitive” instincts and the persistent domains of have-nots, disability is referenced with respect to these idealized visions. As a vector of human variability, disabled bodies both represent a throwback to human prehistory and serve as the barometer of a future without deviancy.” p. 31

I, think, however, they should have also included some discussion of liberalism, which in many ways, was the legal and philosophical engine that helped to naturalize capitalism not to mention it also offered a vision of person, in which self-development, expression, and discrete autonomy was deeply cherished. Seen in this liberal light, disability becomes also a type of “tragedy” that can be resolved though new technological interventions they discuss under the guise of modernity.

I have just started Michelle Murphy’s Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty: Environmental Politics, Technoscience, and Women Workers, which promises to be quite a tour de force into the contentious politics of uncertainty and the play of perceptibility and imperceptibility that surround one of many many syndromes—sick building syndrome—that now are part and parcel of the medical and patient advocacy field.

Along with this I read and finished Andrew Lakoff’s Pharmaceutical Reason: Knowledge and Value in Global Psychiatry, which will make for great teaching, and has one of the nicest discussions on the way in which psychiatry’s insecure status among the other medical science was one of the driving forces toward embracing the new scientism of the 1980s that coincided with new more general neoliberal trends. Another nice move about the ethnography is that he was able to clarify some of the trends and rationalities of American and European psychiatry by examining how it was received and resisted among more psychoanalytical Argentinian therapists. Very classicial anthropological lens in that sesne.

Finally I am in the middle of Play Money: Or, How I Quit My Day Job and Made Millions Trading Virtual Loop and I will say more about it when I am done, which should be soon as I am tearing through it evern night. I have been waiting for this book for a long while now because Dibbell is part of that trinity (Steven Levy, Bruce Sterling, Julian Dibbell) that offers some of the best writing on hackers, the internet, and virtual worlds. And this book continues in that tradition of providing a fantastic read, a vivid ethnographic picture of the topic at hand, along with key insights into the nature of economies, money, and plau within (and outside of) virtual landscapes. What I respect about Julian Dibbell is that he took a long time to get this book out. He started the research in 2003 and then spent a few years writing up. I think there is a lot of pressure to get any material or book on “virtual whatever” out there as quick as possible but for the most part I think that is a mistake. You need to let these things brew a long while or else they won’t acquire that taste of a finished product.


  1. Thank you for the reviews.
    I’ve added a few things to my reading list.

    Comment by ggoossen — October 8, 2006 @ 12:25 pm

  2. “A theory of structure: duality, agency, and transformation” is an awesome paper, and I’ve placed Logics of History on my readings list!

    Comment by Joseph Reagle — October 9, 2006 @ 5:57 am

  3. I was going to “make you” I mean suggest you read it Joe when we talked :-)


    Comment by Biella — October 9, 2006 @ 6:14 am

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