Monthly Archives: September 2015

The Critical Fate of the Major Novel

9780374239213I read Jonathan Franzen’s Purity in one sitting: It came in the mail, I opened it up, and despite frequent breaks and every intention of doing something else with my time, I ended up finishing the novel before the next day broke.

This isn’t a ringing endorsement of Purity as a book. It is, I would say, an interesting mess. It has a huge plot in which everyone ends up connected to everyone else, but when the pieces come together, it’s not exciting—just over-determined. Franzen has continued his commitment to “transparent access” (i.e. uninteresting prose). The result is a certain predictability and a sentence-by-sentence flatness.

The Franzen news cycle has, by this point, come and gone, at least until Franzen himself gives another press interview and (inevitably) says something a little ill-considered (or at least easily misrepresented). But it reminded me of the cycle of coverage that surrounded another “big” novel this year—Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. There, too, the coverage ended up being linked to Ishiguro’s biography and to a remark he made in an interview about concerns that the book would be viewed as “fantasy.”

And, much like Purity, The Buried Giant was not a book that lent itself to an easy “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.” It, too, was an interesting mess. It attempted a lot of things and failed at some of them. The best reviews were those that set aside the task of delivering some sort of definitive verdict to consider the novel as a complex whole. And this has been the case, too, with Purity. (For good reviews in the sense I mean, I would recommend Lydia Kiesling at the Millions and Elaine Blair at Harper’s, along with James Meek at the London Review of Books.)

An “interesting mess”–type book is a challenge for a reviewer because, as a category, it resists the somewhat more headline-friendly declaration that the novel is the “best yet,” the “worst yet,“ the “most challenging yet,” or the “most disappointing yet.”  Or you can sidestep this kind of difficulty in order to talk about the author. Or you can simply make your declaration anyway. Continue reading

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The Hedgehog’s Array: September 25, 2015

hedgehog array logo_FLAT_72dpi[3]Noteworthy reads from the last week:

“Down the Rabbit Hole,” Evan Kindley
“What makes a good annotator? It’s some combination, apparently, of excess and restraint: an instinct for when to tell us more than we need to know (or more than we knew there was to know) balanced with a refusal to bore us.”

“This Free Online Encyclopedia Has Achieved What Wikipedia Can Only Dream Of,” Nikhil Sonnad
“The [Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy] is a highly rare case of knowledge being separated from the trash heap. The question is, can we make more of the internet like this?”

“The Magic of Untidiness,” Laurel Berger
“Renewal is what we do each time we revisit a book. It’s not only the text that holds meaning, but the thing itself and the imprint that time and lived experience have left on it.”

“How Naked People Took Over Reality Television,” James Parker
“The discourse of true love, of finding the right person, etc., winds bizarrely and distractingly through Dating Naked, past the yoga boners and the lewd poolside fondlings.”

“The Pamphleteers,” Scott Porch and Gordon Wood
“The pamphlets are hard to read. There are too many citations to Cicero and Tacitus, and there’s a very limited audience for that. To some extent, that’s true today. People who read The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and Atlantic Monthly are the same people.”

“Broken Links,” Alana Massey
“I asked Michael L Nelson, a computer scientist at Old Dominion University in Virginia, how likely it is that someone, or something, could follow my trail back to find the comments and profiles I’d flung across the internet in the 1990s and early 2000s.”

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Nature Writing Gets Personal

H is for HawkWe know a lot about Henry David Thoreau, and we should. He went to Harvard, worked in his father’s pencil factory, set up a school with his brother John, did odd jobs for Ralph Waldo Emerson, fought for John Brown, became a transcendentalist, battled tuberculosis and, most memorably, built a cabin and had deep thoughts on Walden Pond. These and other biographical details can be found and confirmed on Google. Go nuts.

But what we don’t know about Thoreau is how he actually felt about any of it. Thoreau’s writings, Walden in particular, offer the most compelling philosophical and naturalistic observations in the American canon, but the messier ingredients of inner life—suffering, exaltation, insecurity, angst, and the rest—barely register. This is not a criticism; after all, Thoreau’s private emotional existence may have been uninteresting (or even unavailable) to him. Even so, it’s worth noting that the father of American nature writing established a precedent of temperamental reserve that survived the confessional flood of the Victorian era, continued into the twentieth century, and, to a large extent, remains the norm today.

It seems safe to suggest that, throughout the history of American nature writing, lugging one’s emotional baggage into the natural world has been considered, if not bad form, inconsistent with the genre’s larger mission: to subsume “man” in the ineffable awesomeness of “nature.” “Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature,” Thoreau advised in Walden. It was in nature, after all, that the emotional angst of daily life was softened by the imperative of “simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.” It was in nature that the elemental purity of “eternity” rendered irrelevant the tangibly “thin current” of petty human preoccupation, a current too often infected with what Thoreau dismissed as the flotsam of modernity. Continue reading

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Can Evangelicals Agree With Bernie Sanders?

Bernie Sanders speaking at Liberty University. (Screencap from C-SPAN recording.)

Bernie Sanders speaking at Liberty University. Image from C-SPAN recording.

What should we expect from white evangelicals?* It’s a complicated question with a lot of answers, but among those answers is probably not “a lefty socialist irreligious Jew speaking at one of their flagship universities.” Yet there was Bernie Sanders last week, speaking at Liberty University, making the case that inequality and dire poverty are moral issues that speak to Christians’ core concerns. By all accounts, Sanders was met with applause, with students and onlookers telling reporters they appreciated the reminders to remember the poor.

Should we be surprised? While I’m not an evangelical myself, my first (forthcoming) book is about my fieldwork in two evangelical high schools, and at one of the schools, many students and teachers went to Liberty for undergrad. So I’m not at all surprised that Sanders received a warm welcome: There’s a cultural expectation of kindness and welcoming in these communities. One of the most vicious stereotypes about evangelicals is that they’re personally unkind. Sometimes their politics makes their relationships to outsiders complicated: It’s hard not take “hate the sin, love the sinner” as anything but patronizing, but the intention is nearly always one of kindness.

Yet Bernie at Liberty raises a question that liberal Christians and frustrated outsiders have been asking since the Reagan Revolution. If their founder insisted the last shall be first, wandering with nowhere to lay his head, commanding his followers to do likewise (don’t even bring an extra shirt!), why do evangelicals need any reminder at all that poverty is an important issue?

There’s a lot of good work on this question right now, and much of it hinges upon a crucial insight: Evangelicals aren’t nearly as coherent a group as you might think. Many are creationists, but many are not, or they’re creationist with caveats. Many oppose abortion, but not all, and not all in the ways you would expect. Homosexuality is even more complicated. And so, of course, is poverty. Continue reading

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The Hedgehog’s Array: September 18, 2015

hedgehog array logo_FLAT_72dpi[3]Noteworthy reads from the last week:

“Finding Your Way Home,” Peter Godfrey-Smith
“Dreyfus and Taylor think that philosophy constantly invents new ways to falsely intellectualize our relationship to things that we do. Philosophy itself does not subside once we see these issues clearly; philosophy has tasks beyond merely diagnosing errors.”

“The Accidental Diorama of a Novelist’s Life,” Mary Duffy
“In the face of this older, employed, nearly-tenured professional person who would probably write real things, publishable things in this chair, I suddenly worried that I would have to relinquish it, that I had done something rude.”

“What Is the Point of College?,” Kwame Anthony Appiah
“As higher education expands its reach, it’s increasingly hard to say what college is like and what college is for.”

“Speaking in Science,” Christine Mitchell
“Scientific Babel, it might be said, now confronts us on seemingly different fronts—the human and the machinic.”

“Inside The Mermaid Economy,” Elizabeth Segran
“As someone who has tracked mermaid culture for about a decade, Wolbert says that fascination with mermaids has always been there under the surface.”

“Cattle Calls,” Ted Conover
“The heartland has been emptying of large-animal vets for at least two decades, as agribusiness changed the employment picture and people left the region. Many vets simply close shop when they retire; private practice is too hard a way to make a living. Meanwhile, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has become the nation’s largest single employer of vets, most of whom work in meat and poultry plants, where they oversee not animal husbandry but slaughter.”

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College Degrees or College Education?

A college diploma. Our Lady of Disgrace via flickr.

A college diploma. Our Lady of Disgrace via flickr.

The much-awaited, much-debated Obama College Scorecard has just been released. Some reports have described it as a retreat by the administration, with President Obama caving to pressure from a chorus of college and university leaders. But if the failure to include a numerical ranking of the evaluated schools is a compromise, it is an insignificant one. Close examination shows that the Scorecard effectively supports the administration’s broader effort to redefine the purpose of higher education as the preparation of young Americans for high-paying jobs. The real question, of course, is whether we should be happy about this administration victory.

To be sure, the Scorecard provides Americans with some useful information on schools’ average annual costs, graduation rates, and graduates’ incomes. For example, despite posted tuitions, many private universities and colleges offer significant discounts and financial aid, making them much more affordable than their sticker price would suggest. Revealing this fact may inspire more applicants to consider schools that they thought were out of reach. It may even inspire more schools to devote resources to financial aid.

Still, the clear implication here is that the point of a college degree is to get in and out as cheaply and quickly as possible in order to secure a job with a big salary. And let us not pretend that colleges won’t respond to these incentives.

The Obama administration, for its part, knows the power of this kind of nudge. They want parents and potential students to be make choices based on those bottom-line criteria. Given how colleges and universities responded to US News and World Report’s highly influential rankings, the risk that colleges will begin to change themselves is real. If this means emphasizing accounting over literature, so be it. Continue reading

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In Defense of Scientific Asteroids

Great Comet of 1577 (Georgium Jacobum von Datschitz). Via Wikimedia Commons.

Great Comet of 1577 (Georgium Jacobum von Datschitz). Via Wikimedia Commons.

 

People often ask me to define sociology, nearly always because I’ve just told them I’m a sociologist, but sometimes because the person asking me is also a sociologist, and none of us are actually that sure. I’ve got a few distinctions I keep at hand:

  1. Social workers help people. Sociologists just study them.
  2. Economists study how people make choices. Sociologists study how people aren’t able to make choices.
  3. Psychologists study individuals. Sociologists don’t believe individuals exist.
  4. Anthropologists never saw a category they couldn’t “problematize.” Sociologists never saw a category they couldn’t turn into a two-by-two table.
  5. Political scientists are positivists. Sociologists cross-dress as positivists.

None of these characterizations are true, in any of their directions. You can find a sociologist to disprove any of these distinctions, which, some might say, is part of the problem with sociology. We don’t have a clear sense of who we are.

In a recent article at The Smart Set, Michael Lind proposed an ideal university whose most important characteristic is its abolition of the social sciences. Sociology and all its siblings cannot escape the error of the “physics envy” that motivated their existence. Lind’s got a problem with social forces or anything bigger than the mess of individuals making their own individual decisions. It’s an ironic critique for someone who had just been criticizing rational choice theory (whose central conceit is exactly the same criticism), and it’s made more difficult by Lind acknowledging institutions, which is a category so capacious as to include everything from marriage to I.B.M. Yet whether Lind is right is less important than what the criticism represents: Something is rotten in the state of social science.

The article refers to similar debates in international relations, political science, and economics, all about the wrongheadedness of hyper-precise mathematical models and the absurdity of presuming a lab-like science of the social, one in which variables can be isolated as cleanly as they can be in physics. These debates are made more relevant by a recent paper showing how hard it is to reproduce some of psychology’s most important findings, and while the problems with psychology are not as big a deal as they might appear (it gets a bit wonky, but it has a lot do with P-values), they do raise the question: Is the science in social science worth defending?

Continue reading

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