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Archive for February, 2013

Nicholas Daly. . Sensation and Modernity in the 1860s. Pp. xii + 246. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009

 

Review by Alexander I. Stingl

 

In 2008, I was asked to write four reviews for an Open Access Journal in Culture Studies. After I was finished with the reviews, the journal’s editors decided to discontinue their work and could not find successors. The reviews never got published. I am using this opportunity here:

 

The title of Nick Daly’s Sensation and Modernity sounded very inspiring when I picked this little book from a list of titles to be reviewed. When the book arrived, the subtitle, table of contents, and the book’s foreword seemed anything but. Above all, the author himself declared that the project itself underwent many changes, an admission that is only rarely foretelling anything good about an academic production these days.

However, the book which seemed by a quick overview to be merely a hyperspecialized treatise on on a small section of literature that would interest perhaps those ten experts residing in that particular niche, turned into one of the most insightful and also fun reads of my academic year. The prior quality, insight, was achieved due to Daly’s ability to see connections between a variety of political, social, scientific and cultural developments that mark a great humanist scholar, and the latter quality, fun, because Daly is, among his other scholarly qualities, an accomplished writer.

 

The canvas of Daly’s study is small, circumscribing the introduction of Britain“s 1867 reform act, but it is the picture’s intricate details and shining colours in that Daly paints that mark it a piece of exemplary and outstanding scholarship. The masterful brushstrokes of the five chapters weave a coherent narrative that pronounces the accomplished storyteller, who began his research with the Woman in White, a mysterious trope that appeared in theater, prose and art around the mid 1800s, most notably in the work of Wilkie Collins, an author who will in the collective memory as he was in life, forever be overshadowed by his friend Charles Dickens, while many familiar with literature history and theory consider him to be the technically more accomplished writer whose sales often trumped Dickens’s, while proving that sales just do not equal either success, influence or fame.

The same thing may hold true for Daly’s book, one can hope. As I said, on second glance (!), the book does not seem as promising as at first, but the experience of actually reading it makes an era, its tropes, its images, and more over its social and cultural embeddedness come alive. Daly is knowledgeable of most methodological trends of the past few decades and employs their insights well, instead of focusing on the application of a methodical or political doctrine.

Thus, anybody looking for a feminist elucidation of the discontents of the women in white, or a pseudo-Foucauldian search for power within the theatrical discourses will be disappointed. And therein lies the actual contribution of the book. Daly encountered a problem in the trope of the women in white, a problem that begged the question what kind of a culture it was that could be so taken with that trope and at the same time at the level of administration beget the Reform Act of 1867. In short, Daly seeks to illustrate that the question of how political modernization and culture in the age where the „public“ became quite a crowd were related, can only be answered by accounting for the phenomenon of sensation. He shows that sensation is a multifarious affair and that all its dimensions are tied into the processes he investigates – they surface in the novels, plays, musical productions, and the emerging „marketing“ of cultural productions..

The 25 illustrations reprinted in the book shape a visual journey that reinforces his argument while his integration of their visual discourse (or viscourse) engages, involves, and even provokes the reader into smiles, shock, and sometimes sheer awe. The „sensation“ that they were in their respective era is made both intelligible and emotionally recognizable through Daly’s scholarly craftsmanship, or penmanship to be precise, yet never without following warning and caution to remain scientific by his account of the ties to the science and pseudo-science of the times, like psychotechnics or mesmerism.

And this is why Daly’s study may generate a lasting influence. For it is an exemplary execution of today’s type of micro-studies. But where others choose ever smaller periods and localities, use a singular method, isolate a small fact that supposedly explains nothing but the need for further research, Daly, while also choosing a rather small period and focuses on Britain – specifically Londonized British culture – he does not eschew the fact that his study deals with a nexus of events that rested on premises and had consequences, both geographically and in time. He is a positivist, a „happy one“ (Michel Foucualt) who considers the events before the methods that he chooses. He does not have to produce his object of study, instead he let’s the material guide him and invites us to join him in the experience. Respectively, as readers, even as well-schooled and highly critical readers, we come out of this experience, let us call it the Daly-sensation, slightly changed. It is an exercise in learning, again, that it is sometimes the actual richness of an event that is the crucial aspect that deserves to be studied rather than an isolated detail. It is the appreciation of the fact that a historical event, like the Reform Act of 1867, is not just discursively produced, is not the effect of networks of power, nor is it in itself a monistic stitch in time, as a resurgent class of historians and literary critics of late want us to believe (again). Nor is it a complex chaos, where some supervenient factors can be found that generate this or that discursive effect.

The crucial moment of the Daly-sensation comes after reading his study, that while you cannot put a name to it, you can put your finger on to it: Sensation and Modernity are inseparable, and the Woman in White was one of the many tropes where this shines through.

It may explain little but by understanding it, we get the impression that this kind of understanding sure feels like it could explain everything.

 

 

 

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John Ernest, Chaotic Justice: Rethinking African American Literary HistoryUniversity of North Carolina PressISBN-13: 9780807859834 – ISBN-10: 0807859834

Publication Date: 11/15/2009
Pages: 336

 

Review by Alexander I. Stingl,

 

In 2008, I was asked to write four reviews for an Open Access Journal in Culture Studies. After I was finished with the reviews, the journal’s editors decided to discontinue their work and could not find successors. The reviews never got published. I am using this opportunity here:

 

John Ernest has created a study that is nothing short of impressive.

It is also nothing short of extremely demanding. I am saying this, for it is a good thing. All too often have recent publications in the fields of literature and culture studies been dominated by a fatal combination of mediocrity and apologetics, fueled by the pressure that humanities scholarship has come under during the past decade of tightening budgets and intellectual decline – but honestly, you can only dumb down academic content so much.

John Ernest remains somewhat of a beacon, not shying from complex argument or controversial thought. Respectively, his bold attempt to consider the fertility of complexity theory for literature history turned out a study that does not just revamp the plethora of the eclectic accounts of African-American literature history in the 19th century, it refocuses the historian’s and literature student’s gaze away from the tendency of reifying the political category of race into natural kinds and towards the shifty, the vague and the fragmented, yes, the very messy reality that people in the American 19th century actually had to live and thrive, to suffer and die, and to occupy spaces in between in.

The problem, we find made explicit, is that the complex circumstances of 19th century authors having lived an African-American life may have been defined partially by the very racial identity that has been assigned to them by our modern-day scholars. But the ascription of this collective identity was not as clear to the authors during their actual lifetimes. It was, we must understand after John Ernest’s elaboration, clear that a general ideology of racism existed, but its actual circumstantial practice varied and wavered, and respectively did the authors perception of his/her own identity and place, while authors, at the same time, did not lose their instinct for collective justice and goals pertaining to to it.

What is most interesting is that, while he does not cite or mention the often misrepresented and ill-understood Michel Foucault, he seems to come extremely close to many of Foucault’s core lessons. In particular, when Ernest reaches into the problems of reconstructing the 19th century writers in the contexts of racial ideologies, individual social circumstances, global and local collective identities, and the creation of text. The writer’s identity as an author surfaces as the product of negotiation and, consequently, as an experience. Identities are, therefore, experiences and it is the experiences we have to find behind the categories and within the contingencies. They are not essences, which Ernest underscores, but they are, in a way, essential. Identity is a loaded word, if it is perceived through the idea of the static core that persists. But identities as experiences are dynamic, volatile, and, at the same time, not arbitrary. He knows that he is hardly the first to make this case – again, it is one of Foucault’s essential features. At the same time, he is aware that such a non-dogmatic, pragmatic approach is open to criticism from both sides and therefore often short-lived. However, this is not a time to be on the defensive, as many of the “establishment” currently seem to think: The humanities are, indeed, under attack; so they defend what they have left and hope to get away with it (http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/10/11/the-crisis-of-the-humanities-officially-arrives/) for as long as possible. But the best defense is a good offense in this case. We do not need to defend the humanities as heritage or through some half-hearted “better business-deals” logic. What Ernest teaches in his book is that experiences in everyday life of past generations have been just as complex – politically, socially, culturally – as today’s. There is little difference in the fact of experiencing a challenged identity then and now, and there is every difference in the actual individual experiences. Traditional and dogmatic approaches tend to tell us otherwise. The twist that Ernest exposes his readers to is, that, from understanding the complexity of challenges and negotiations, we are enabled to both reconstruct the way of someone’s life and creatively construct our way of life. It is a bit of an anti-canonical enterprise, at least against the current ones, based on a faith in values that are contingent and not dogmatic. This is Ernest’s enterprise, in the wake of Henry Louis Gates, to open literary canons and reified categories for the fact that those enclosed by them actually lived a multitude of experiences and that, respectively, our contemporary lives are equally fragmented, chaotic, and – to use a sociological neologism – intersectional.

This said, it must also be stated that this is not a textbook. It is certainly not fit for a classroom or undergraduates. It is a book for advanced readers, teachers of literature included. Its intention, aside from scientific contribution, can be identified as making those who teach literature aware that experience and the variety of experience should rule their curriculum, whereas today’s schools and university’s put the curriculum first and try to pre-determine experience. But for what kind of reality do we prepare our students in this case?

The task of the teacher in literature studies is to enable experience, to enable her/his students to make experiences and to include these into the increasingly complex lives they have to live. This is what John Ernest allows us to see (again). By illumination this fact on the subject of 19th century African American literature, he also reopens a field of study, others have long “closed” when they erected their canon.

That we do not understand the 19th century well, while many of its historic constellations still affect our lives implicitly, is a fact that a small but growing community of scholars from different disciplines has pushed for. But understanding, first of all, that and, secondly, how history affects our decisions and experiences today is essential for us to continue in the globalizing civil sphere, to employ Jeffrey Alexander’s concept. Those who have to prepare the students of today and tomorrow for that, would do well to keep their faith in the humanities potential to do that and they find an equally productive and engaging guide in Chaotic Justice.

 

 

 

 

 

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Electronic Elsewheres

Media, Technology, and the Experience of Social Space

Chris Berry, Soyoung Kim, and Lynn Spigel, editors

 

 

University of Minnesota Press

$25.00 paper
ISBN: 978-0-8166-4737-8

$75.00 cloth
ISBN: 978-0-8166-4736-1

 

Review by Alexander I. Stingl, Pompeii Editor-in-chief

 

In 2008, I was asked to write four reviews for an Open Access Journal in Culture Studies. After I was finished with the reviews, the journal’s editors decided to discontinue their work and could not find successors. The reviews never got published. I am using this opportunity here:

 

The creation of a reader or an anthology usually serves a clearly defined purpose. Sometimes it is intended to be a textbook collecting important texts that shaped a field, sometimes it collects essays to provide points of view on one particular research question, sometimes it is meant to celebrate a particular scholar (although the Festschrift-genre has currently fallen out of fashion). And sometimes, readers are left to wonder whatever it was that went through the editors’ minds other than: „Oh let’s find a catchy title and provide some friends and students with opportunities to fill their publication list“. Electronic Elsewheres is, it seems unfortunately, one of the latter kind.

This is not to say that there isn’t the occasional gem we can find in it; Lynn Spigel’s essay, with near 40 pages also the longest of the contributions, is a nice tour de force through theory and empirical work that never bores and makes for a good class-room reading, too.

But the quality, the themes, the approaches of each and every essay in this hotchpotch of a collection differ so severely that it is hard to understand what is supposed to make this reader as a whole coherent, interesting, or, even, worthwhile: Certainly it is not the title Electronic Elsewheres, which is never defined or theorized in the reader into any kind of truly operational concept, even if the editors try to elucidate it in the first passage of their introduction. They try to say that the essays of the reader account for social constructions of the experience of place through media, but they phrase this so cryptically that it is unclear that this is meant to say or what the essays are supposed or not supposed to do. Some contributions have nothing to do with place altogether, others deal with the social role that media play in modernizing societies, others construct media through space not the other way round, etc., etc. The worst part of nearly all contributions is that there isn’t even anything to disagree with. These contributions are devoid of provocations, theses, radical ideas. They are begging the question, is this still scientific? Save perhaps Spigel, I am forced to say “No!”, since most essays basically just list a few factual observations that are hopelessly undertheorized and way too specialized to really mean anything to readers of the book; save the two or three people who specialize in the particular area of just that one essay. But even for those kinds of readers, these essays qualify in the „Yeah, nice to know“ category.

I must admit, I cannot hide my disappointment; of all the books I was supposed to review in 2010 for various journals, Electronic Elsewheres was one that I had been looking most forward to. But after laying it down past its 250 or so pages, I felt that was left with very little to work on by the contributors and editors.

Again, Spigel’s essay was the usual brilliant and saturated account she is known for, drawing on elaborate theory to come up with a deep perspective on the transformation our home spaces experience with digitalization. It was also a welcome relief on page 41 after suffering through an introduction that tried to race through naming nearly everything that was ever cited in media studies, and three essays that neither tried to answer a research question nor bring us closer to one.

David Morley, seemed to have been totally confused what he was actually supposed to talk about, and his title Domesticating dislocation in a world of „new“ technology betrays that. He failed to theorize domestication, dislocation, and the domestication of dislocation, and never made intelligible why he thinks we need to discuss “the new in new technologies”.

It is also a bit odd that his essay opens the section on the „reconfigured home“, while he speaks mostly of „mobility“, which he ends up equating with distanceleness, failing to really account for how that concept is supposed to account for dislocation.

Indeed, it seems a poor choice by the editors to choose this essay on mobility to open this particular section on the home, since the other essays neither pick up on mobility nor do they present valid counterpoints.

After reading Lisa Nakamura’s essay twice, I still haven’t clearly identified what it actually is that she wants to talk about. A recurrent theme is visual images on the web and the body image pregnant women, but it is a recurrent, not a coherent theme. On her less than 15 pages, she rummages through this theme, as she does throguh feminism and image, internet technobabble, complex screen-shots shots she uses to exemplify „something“ – it eludes me what – which would deserve a proper hermeneutic decoding, and she intermixes mention (not explication) of different theoretical ideas on image, technology and society from Elkins, Mitchell, Haraway and others, leaving us in the dark what her own position is supposed to be.

What I took away as a conclusion from her essay is that, “yes, pregnant women are on the web, they have avatars on the web, but they don’t show dead babies”. If that is not “elsewhere”, well I don’t what is. Before Spigel’s essay offers the reader a long-awaited relief, the reader and this reviewer, have to endure Jeff Sconce’s account of The talking weasel of Doarlish Casheen. Not that I do not admire that his research required an eye for detail – I am a part-time historian myself – and he also tried to mention some theory (Deleuze and Lacan), although in finishing up, he then suggets a more „materialist approach“. But most of his article is lost on everyone who doesn’t know the detailed history of the BBC and British cartoons and spoofs in the 1930s. And, honestly, who does?

In short, he (and this is true of most contributors in this volume) fails to show why his special interest does tell us something of a broader interest. Readers who do not know details of each author’s special field are left with unintelligible pieces of writing. And this is where the compisiton of the collection hits us, for each contribution, unfortunately stands alone. They even rarely correspond with the theme of the section they are set in. Section one on home domestication, I just discussed, is just as representative as any other would be. Only Spigel’s essay touches base with her section theme, and it is actually surprising that she is one of the editors.

Each essay would have made a fine contribution to a journal in their respective fields, I am sure. But as a reader, designed for an audience of either readers interested in the field described in the title and back matter or as a source-book for students, the reader fails at every corner. The back matter statement by William Boody describes the „first-rate collection“ as a „real contribution to the field“ and „well-thought-out“. Perversely, the reader fits the exact opposite.

 

 

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Between Culture and Biology

Perspectives on Ontogenetic Development

  • Editors: Heidi Keller, Ype H. Poortinga, Axel Schölmerich

  • Hardback

Series: Cambridge Studies in Cognitive and Perceptual Development (No. 8)

  • 448 pages

  • 25 b/w illus. 15 tables

 

Review by Alexander I. Stingl

 

In 2008, I was asked to write four reviews for an Open Access Journal in Culture Studies. After I was finished with the reviews, the journal’s editors decided to discontinue their work and could not find successors. The reviews never got published. I am using this opportunity here:

 

For some people, there are no mistakes only happy accidents. In fact, that this fun little reader ended up on my desk was an incredibly happy accident, given that the reader, which emerged from conference proceedings in 1998, was already published in 2002 and ended up on a recent „new items for review“ list by said happy accident.

Sure, some or the other reflection on biological research presented in the reader may be a bit outdated. What makes this reader outstanding though, is that it provides an assortment of texts that are not just „expert-oriented“ but instead make a large variety of topics accessible for

informed non-expert readers and students alike, without the stuffy style that textbooks with an interdisciplinary agenda often feature, neither is it an incoherent assortment of individual studies nor have the authors gone out of their way in trying to unify their ideas by force rather than intelligibility.. In short, its success lies in the fact that it is textbook that was never meant to be a textbook, while each contributor took both the topic as well as her/his own research seriously.

 

The three introductions that are „Setting the Scene(Part 1)“, cover a good portion of the historical (Gustav Jahoda: 13 – 29) and the conceptual (Patricia M. Greenfield: 57 – 76) groundwork that anthropologists, sociologists, psychologist and biologists with an interest in human development should generally be able to understand comprehensively. Greenfield also draws on her field research in Mexico to help along the illustration of crucial points (supplanted with comparative perspectives fom other cultures), which enriches her presentation to the point that educated readers are equally enlightened as they are entertained.

Between these two chapters, Anne Russon (30 – 56) creates an exposition of working with apes, which is – sadly – a bit drier than most of the contributions in this reader, but for anybody fascinated with orang-utan culture or how to systematically study it, it is certainly a highlight.

Respectively, these three essays are not just individually informative, they are also helpful to students in the field of human development towards making career choices, since all three essays develop three different directions that a research career can take in this field of crossing psychology with biology.

Part 2, on perspectives of development by culture, is split into two case studies and two theoretical elaborations. Ernst E. Boesch’s ideas deserve special attention, since Boesch (born in 1916, and a direct student of various notables in several fields, including Piaget) has taught many of the international field’s greatest minds of the past half of a century, including Paul Baltes and Lutz Eckensberger, even though Boesch’s own impressive contributions are, unfortunately,, mostly exclusively in German rather than currently available in English. In this regard, his essay on „The myth of lurking chaos“ in this edition is a good opportunity to get acquainted with Boesch’s illustrious scholarship.

Part 3 and 4, discussing perspectives of universal/specific and evolutionary thought, are opportunities for some „textbook“ window-shopping, so to speak.

In particular Michael Casimir’s and Michael Schnegg’s treatment of „shame across cultures“ (270 – 300) is an engaging and easily accessible piece on the study of the question whether basic emotions are universal or not. Not only do they manage to offer a well-informed discussion (their 7 page long bibliography gives testimony of that), they also create an account that shows how much research we still can do here and how we can go about it; another great class-room text, in other words.

The fifth and concluding part, Metaperspectives, is certainly the crucial aspect for the success of this reader: All three essays that it comprises are nothing short of outstanding. Michael Cole (303 – 319) creates an equally swift yet exhaustive overview, which at no point appears overwhelming for even those of novice status among readers. In the editors’ clever strucutre, Cole precedes an intellectually more demanding contribution by Poortinga and Soudijn (320 – 340), which will be of interest to advanced readers also, and is not something you want to introduce at the beginning of the semester but keep for the last sessions to provide students with a bit of a sophisticated challenge to finish their year.

Lutz H. Eckensberger (341 – 383) concludes this part, revisiting paradigms beginning with the idea of the paradigm (and a discussion of Thomas Kuhn) itself. Readers finish his contribution with the feeling of having a clear idea of necessity and the history of the demarcating lines between disciplines and problems that developmental biologists, cultural anthropologists and other scholars interested in human development need to be able to appreciate. This question of demarcations is also where the editors of the volume pick up the thread in their concluding epilogue for the volume.

If one thing has been made clear by the reader, it is that not only is there are connection between human culture and the biological development of individual human beings, but that students and researchers need to have at least a basic understanding of the other dimension, and that there are interesting ideas to be found in the history of science while a number of more recent and exciting studies are available, which give rise to the creation of further efforts in this field.

Let me sum this up once more: Between Biology and Culture, despite the fact that it is already nearly a decade old, is an interesting an engaging reader, which continues to offer great potential for its use as class-room literature in undergraduate and graduate courses as well as it is an insightful source for advanced readers from various scholarly fields, who may be interested in the question of the relation between human development and culture. As accidents go, this reviewer is more than happy about this one, an “old” book landing on his desk, and certainly several of the texts in this reader will pop up in the reading assignments he creates.

 

 

 

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