I once went on a research trip to Tanzania with a bunch of anthropology undergrads. As dedicated anthropologists, they all chafed at the fact that manI once went on a research trip to Tanzania with a bunch of anthropology undergrads. As dedicated anthropologists, they all chafed at the fact that many of the liberal arts schools they attended lumped anthro and sociology together and required students to study both. Sociology was clearly inferior, of course, and they even went so far as to take issue with its core tenet, that "Reality is socially constructed." These were educated kids, so I was a bit shocked, but when I asked what they believed instead, they told me "reality is culturally constructed." I still facepalm every time I think of this. And Herb Gintis is a kindred spirit. The uniting impetus of this book is that four academic disciplines are trying to describe the same phenomena and use theoretical frameworks that are incommensurable and to some degree mutually exclusive, but which must compete and integrate if they are ever to adequately explain their subject.
For Gintis, those disciplines are the "behavioral sciences," including economics, sociology, psychology, anthropology, and sociobiology. Gintis frames this in terms of an explanation for human social behavior, though I think the content of the book points toward a more generalized account of the evolution of social behavior with less specific to say about human society than he implies in the framing material. It's an understandable impulse, and the same one that motivated me to pick up the book.
That is, it feels like we're on the cusp of seeing humans, and all of our cultural traditions and behaviors, as products of a process of genetic and cultural evolution tremendously different in particulars but fundamentally the same as those experienced by other animals. The peak these disciplines are climbing toward is coming into focus. An uncharitable read of this book is just that it's jumping the gun, trying to tie these threads together before they're long enough to reach--most of the slack is filled in with Gintis' pet theories, that don't feel adequately grounded in disciplinary work. I think that's unfair because Gintis knows it; the epilogue admits that his goal was mainly to provocatively mix behavioral disciplines in order to blur the lines and get people to do this on the wider basis that will be necessary to make it robust.
That makes it necessarily a less exciting book than it promises to be. Its other flaws, at least as a pop-academic work, are in presentation. It feels very disjointed among chapters, the classic career-retrospective "toss all the major publications in as chapters" gambit, and each chapter is dense with algebra that might be super insightful but fuck if I'm gonna take the time to dig into that right now. And the framing just makes it seem like he doesn't have a take home point so much as a contribution to multiple long-standing arguments (the group selection conversation the nastiest of them). There are some neat ideas in here--the evolution of property chapter stands out for its unifying insight--but they are generally available as papers and don't require the book as a whole. To be fair, though, I skimmed/skipped much of it :/...more
Breen's New History is more book than I needed it to be, and also doesn't quite cover the things I was most interested in. Nonetheless, it's a well-wrBreen's New History is more book than I needed it to be, and also doesn't quite cover the things I was most interested in. Nonetheless, it's a well-written book and covers Shinto from a critical and deconstructive approach I appreciate. Breen's thesis is that Shinto as it was until recently understood--as the indigenous religion of Japan, which has been adulterated through exposure to Confucian, Buddhist, and other ideas from Korea and China and even India--is a narrative spun intentionally by elites in the creation of the modern imperial regime. That is, Shinto's contemporary form was born in the same wave of ethno-nationalist folklore studies that birthed the nation-state. In retrospect this is unsurprising--arguably the most dramatic and empowered iteration of that process I know if is Nazism, and it's probably no coincidence that the peak of Imperial Shinto came during World War 2.
There's a bit of squishy business here. Breen argues that Shinto per se didn't exist before it was violently disentangled from Buddhism by the Meiji government. This makes sense, insofar as the extensive presence of Buddhist icons and concepts in "shinto" shrines illustrates almost a thousand years of pluralistic engagement and overlap. But the mere fact that the Meiji government was able to conceive of them as distinct entities--and Breen gives no indication that they were "wrong" or arbitrary in their identification of Buddhist elements--suggests that there was some truth to this distinction. More importantly, it suggests that there was a Shinto (if not a simple or unitary one) in Japan before it was layered and muddled with continental ideas. This is maybe reading it unfairly, but it definitely feels like he's trying to destroy a notion of ethno-cultural purity by discrediting it rather than reframing it as a positive process.
The main reason I found this framing annoying was because it led him to largely ignore the "indigenous Shinto" before Buddhist and Confucian influences as a fiction, and that was of course the part I was more interested in learning about--Imperial Shinto feels blandly political and largely disinterested in place, ecology, story, etc except as a tool for authority. Maybe there aren't great sources on early Shinto or maybe he just wants to make a point about how the Shinto that exists today is ultimately a new hybrid beast that doesn't honestly reflect that indigenous folklore in any meaningful way, and that's fair. But it seems more of a conscious exclusion to focus on Shinto as an institutional conservative force associated with right-wing ideologies today, when presumably there's still a lot of quirky local stuff going on that could be talked about.
Anyway, that question aside, Breen's writing is remarkably brisk and clear. It's just about a lot of esoteric stuff, full of new Japanese terms that overload the working memory and make the eyes glaze over if you're not invested in that level of detail. So I skimmed/skipped through a lot of the meat. The intro and conclusion are quite nice reads though. Just not really what I was looking for (which is not surprising--this is more a history than a mythology book, obviously) but it fills in some useful context.
The other bit I found interesting is that Breen casually dismisses Shinto's reputation as an "ecological" religion as a "fantasy," something that has been attributed to it recently in international perception but not something Shinto priests have historically been cognizant of. He does point out that there is a modern movement among priests managing shrine forests to live up to this new narrative, which is neat. This feels like a question worth a lot more investigation than this off-hand dismissal--surely Shinto is bound up with Japan's complex history of environmental damage and management abroad and on the islands themselves, but I guess that's for another book. ...more
Something about these just feels like over-masticated Lovecraft imitation without enough imagination or character to really latch on to. Wasn't not boSomething about these just feels like over-masticated Lovecraft imitation without enough imagination or character to really latch on to. Wasn't not bored with any of the stories I tried, but I gave up after not too many. ...more
I'm very much into environmental history of course, and STS is something I've read about but never actually read in practice, so this seemed like a peI'm very much into environmental history of course, and STS is something I've read about but never actually read in practice, so this seemed like a perfect opportunity. Not to mention Dolly Jorgensen has done some very interesting work. I was just a bit underwhelmed by these first few essays. Their application of "STS frameworks" don't seem to bring all that much insight to their topics; they feel like you could strip away the language (partly because it *isn't* dense or abstruse) and be left with a straightforward explanation of a social scenario. ...more
A peculiar book. Its influence on Delany's Tales of Neveryon (how I ended up reading it) is clear in the first couple of stories, in the ancient settiA peculiar book. Its influence on Delany's Tales of Neveryon (how I ended up reading it) is clear in the first couple of stories, in the ancient setting unconcerned with worldbuilding and interested only in vague outlines, coupled with a female protagonist with a feminist mythology and stone-cold badass fighting skills coupled with some precociously and acontextually clever ideas. But Alyx was sunk by two things for me.
The first I could have gotten over. It's that the stories are poorly written in a very odd way. They aren't clumsy in the way derivative genre fiction is. But they are told ineptly, moving so quickly, skimming over so much, that it's really hard to grasp a lot of what's going on. The gist of the plot and character arc outlines is clear enough, though often only after several pages do the details of an event really become clear. The problem is that it glides over all the meat of the story. It's hard to put my figure on exactly how it does so; there are important plot developments dropped as afterthoughts at the end of one section and picked up without reintroduction in the next, and characters are often referred to by name only once or not at all. Little context is provided in terms of not just timing and backstory but even in how characters feel about each other or respond to events in the story. Action is described in broad strokes. There are plenty of nice touches in the prose, things you wouldn't expect from a truly poor author, but there are very few moments that feel tangible, in dialogue, introspection, or action. All that said, it reads very quickly and I wouldn't have minded finishing it.
The second thing, though, is that Alyx is not like Neveryon. The protagonist is swiftly plucked from her context in ancient Phoenicia when she discovers a meddling time traveler (whose motivations are conflicting and capricious at best), and is subsequently catapulted forward in time to shepherd a group of far-future dilettante tourists across a vacation planet in advance of a trade war. There's way too much jumping to cope with Russ's ambiguity in establishing any of these scenarios. It's hard to give a shit about any of it. More than that, though, I find the idle mashup of genres and settings distasteful for some reason and the first 120 pages of this book only confirmed that bias. Presumably one would only attempt such a span with some end in mind, but I didn't get the impression that was the case here (maybe unfair?).
I did enjoy the silhouette of Alyx that can be gleaned from the prose. She's refreshingly blunt and violent, in ways that hint at how she was shaped by patriarchy and abuse but not in any particularly obvious or victimized sense. It's hard to convey because there's not a lot there, but I can see how it would have been an inspiration for later writers. ...more
Got through the first 50 pages of this, realizing I wasn't on the same page with his terminology but feeling like I was getting something out of it. TGot through the first 50 pages of this, realizing I wasn't on the same page with his terminology but feeling like I was getting something out of it. Then it dawned on me that while I for some reason assumed he was talking about the derivation of multiple linear regression, he was really just talking about single regression, and that the disparity was only going to get worse, I decided to quit. I feel like I understand a decent amount of statistics but Stigler seems to be writing this for capital-M Mathematicians who apparently use a peculiar set of jargon that isn't even the same as the practical stats material I was taught. ...more
Ugh I can't believe this got published even. Writing a first-person narrative from Luke's perspective is a bold move and it could only have paid off iUgh I can't believe this got published even. Writing a first-person narrative from Luke's perspective is a bold move and it could only have paid off in the hands of a good writer. I got like 15 pages into this and it was definitely clear that Hearne is no Matthew Stover (whose Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor is the best Luke book we'll ever get). But god, ugh, the prose is just soooooooooooo bad. It makes Tarkin and Twilight Company feel so competent and interesting by contrast. It feels like it was written by a teenager. And all the movie references, oof.
The only good thing about this book is that it describes Admiral Ackbar as possessing "a moist charisma."...more
Insofar as this book is a "pro-science" defense of objectivity that takes relativist premises seriously, it's exactly what I'd been looking for but c Insofar as this book is a "pro-science" defense of objectivity that takes relativist premises seriously, it's exactly what I'd been looking for but couldn't find in the Science Wars literature. But insofar as it refuses to accept the validity of subjectivism itself, it finds itself forced into odd semantic arguments that reinforce my impression that there is no valid argument for this position. Like so many of the self-styled pro-science writers, it takes the absurdity of subjectivism for granted while refusing to dismiss the validity of all the arguments the support it.
So the book ends up being a long and tortured attempt to explain objectivity within a subjective framework. That's a neat and interesting question and one that I think sort of comes with the territory of subjectivism. If science has always been subjective, the role of philosophers of science is precisely to explain how science can be done in that epistemological environment because it has always been done in that environment. But the problem is that Scheffler refuses to admit he's working in a subjective framework, so none of the terms and concepts of that framework can be brought to bear.
These problems are compounded by the fact that he's a dense, wordy writer and his points can be hard to extract from his prose, hard to even focus on most of the time tbh. He also loves to engage extensively with previous authors. Their arguments are generally weak to nonsensical, and often overlap. And Scheffler addresses them on the same semantic ground they establish, which is annoying because those grounds are generally dumb. So a lot of the book feels like a take-down of ill-considered objectivist defenses by a subjectivist who won't admit that objectivity can't exist but won't let anyone really defend that idea. It feels, optimistically, like the last gasp of a dying philosophy of science, but since most of the Science Wars took place simultaneous to or after this book, it seems that Scheffler was not able to push a serious response to subjectivist ideas into the mainstream of discourse on his side....more
Romanticism feels like it can't make up its mind who its audience is. Honour follows the style of Landscape and Memory and In Ruins, building thematicRomanticism feels like it can't make up its mind who its audience is. Honour follows the style of Landscape and Memory and In Ruins, building thematic arguments with a series of anecdotes about painters, writers, and critics. But he is trying to cover far more ground, and perhaps feels the need to be more inclusive. He provides much less context for his anecdotes, and while a reader familiar with the artists he mentions might find his arguments interesting, it was really hard for me to keep up with his ideas while also orienting myself in the artistic and political milieus he moves between. It is, in short, not the adult-textbook sort of introduction to Romanticism I was looking for. It also does that obnoxious thing where any French quote shorter than two sentences isn't translated. If you didn't expect us to understand it, why did you include it???...more
I was (and still am) pretty excited by the idea of non-Western historical fantasy. But after Imaro, and now this, I'm starting to get a bit worried thI was (and still am) pretty excited by the idea of non-Western historical fantasy. But after Imaro, and now this, I'm starting to get a bit worried that no one particularly competent has tried. I gave it 80 pages, but it's just clumsy and bland throughout. It has a bunch of neat premises-it's a fantasy, but the plot is a murder procedural rather than some stupid world-shaking quest. And the murder procedural adapts the infrastructure of the Aztec death priesthood as an equivalent for the police and legal systems we're used to. That's a neat idea, but in practice it ends up feeling too similar, too familiar as a mystery story. Moreover, the characterization is bland and totally uninspiring, narration is clumsy to serviceable but never very interesting, and the world-building relies on some mostly superficial steps. I got so sick of the protagonist invoking various gods in very contemporary cliches. The fantasy elements are integrated into the narrator's familiar body of knowledge from the start, but in practice that just means that he can explain everything as soon as he sees it. The magic itself is interesting insofar as it's historical but boring in the way it's presented. The "magical sight" and "smell" gimmick is really lame....more
TV Tropes calls it the "Tome of Eldritch Lore." It's a staple in Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos, where the original Necronomicon has been supplemented byTV Tropes calls it the "Tome of Eldritch Lore." It's a staple in Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos, where the original Necronomicon has been supplemented by the fictional Unaussprechlichen Kulten, or the fictive poems of historical writer Olaus Wormius (references from Eugene Thacker's review of this book). These are the works of scholars with lax compulsions about messing with extra-human arcana, scholars who are inevitably driven mad by the knowledge they accumulate.
Such books exist within stories grounded with more prosaic protagonists, ways for the author to hint at deep and complex bodies of forbidden knowledge. They are generally not even quoted, and certainly never created entirely. To do so would betray a fundamental misunderstanding of how such works function - they are meant to evoke, and executing them in practice can only show that the unimaginable, inhuman secrets they contain are easily imagined in the cozy confines of the writing desk.
Cyclonopedia is the first attempt at such a project I've seen. It's audacious and impressive in its scope and commitment. But it soon becomes clear that, perhaps more disappointing than the inevitable disenchantment that comes with bringing such a book to the light of day, the rantings of mad scholars are just boring, dense, and illogical. They are painful to read. This is why most authors employ protagonists to do the dirty work, bringing to light important plot information and flavor tidbits without showing the tawdry face of madness directly.
I was actually a bit excited as I started reading Cyclonopedia. It references monster movies, video games, takes on the language of academia to describe, create, and play with fantasy ideas in the style Mieville dabbles in but never really indulges. There is a glossary for all the neologisms that compose Cyclonopedia’s mythology. Deleuze and Guattari, IRL postmodern theorists whose work is referenced frequently in the text, have an entry in the glossary. It reads “I want to donate some blood, some philosopher’s blood.” This sort of thing kept me going for 100 pages. I couldn’t believe an author with such a sense of humor would take his bullshit seriously enough to let it stand on its own, without providing any context for it. Apparently that was optimistic of me.
Negarestani and the cover artist, Kristen Alvanson, are both characters in the book by their own names. Alvanson’s character encounters the titular text and her journal constitutes the framing device for the book. This section was apparently written by Alvanson herself, not Negarestani. The framing narrative leads the reader to expect a House of Leaves sort of woven meta-text, with Alvanson as a protagonist who will be experiencing and processing the text alongside us, and presumably interacting with the realities it describes in some more immediate sense.
Including the prologue, there are at least three layers of authorship. One of these includes three authors, occasionally in direct dialogue. There are also allusions to yet another narrative, nested inside the innermost, a riff on Heart of Darkness that suggests it holds the real story. It all reads like a deliberate set-up for proper stories, characterization, payoff. With the exception of Alvanson’s prologue, every character in the titular document (again, at least 4 distinct people, possibly 5) speaks with the same voice, personality, and concerns. Initials, colons, and quotational indents interrupt a seemingly unbroken stream of loopy bullshit.
The body of Cyclonopedia literally reads like a product of mental illness. The obsession with neologisms, words with meanings of intense, nearly spiritual, importance to the writer but no clear meaning to the reader. Taking items of pop culture as sources on par with primary archaeology work or geopolitics. The dense, unrelenting blast of conspiracy theory thinking, following “threads” of mythology, etymology, numerology, and pure free association (oil is under the earth like phlegm is under your face, cardamom is used to clear phlegm). It’s a nightmare to read, and it’s obnoxious because there are some moments of clarity, sections that are delightfully quotable and hold some provocative and creative ideas (Lamassu beings meant to exploit the destructive relationship between war and war machines; even the central conceits about oil, Old Ones, pestilence and demon particles, etc), things that make it seem worth persevering.
But damned if it just ain’t. There are occasionally perfunctory footnotes that maybe continue the thread of some character reading or editing the text. The mad American colonel never turns up again after about halfway through the book. The prologue narrator never appears again either. None of the potential is realized, except within the confines of the intentionally obtuse, deliberately nonsensical theory text itself. Maybe Negarestani intended the book to be grasped by only the most patient and indulging readers. I really hate calling things pretentious, but I have a lot of patience for these things, I’d like to think (I’m in grad school and I can say that it’s quite unfair to blame it for this book).
It really just seems like Negarestani decided not to produce a work that would actually be enjoyable because he frowned upon it, thought he was above it. Then again, maybe he just couldn't get comfortable writing fiction (which would explain why the only proper fiction in here was written by someone else). Like this pile of rubbish was more intelligent, rewarding, and groundbreaking. Maybe it is, but only for a few lucky and patient assholes who think like him.
I just can’t stop thinking of all the ways that this book could be improved with strokes that would not, to my mind, dilute any of its ideas. There are plenty of books out there that achieve this (Pynchon, probably Neal Stephenson). Editing down the bullshit would be a good start – a little goes a long way with that stuff. Allowing the editors (Negarestani’s fictional avatar) of Parsani’s story a bit more freedom to summarize and explain Parsani’s ideas. And of course including a proper story, providing some closure on Kristen’s story, illustrating whether Parsani’s ideas actually intrude into the real world at all.
Because without that last bit, it really is just the rantings of a mad scholar. The fact that Negarestani saw fit to publish this without any context suggests that he thought Parsani’s bullshit was worthwhile in itself. Like he buys into the idea that these concepts shed some light on the Middle East, on the War on Terror. That’s awfully damned arrogant. ...more
Famous as a woman's answer to the overwhelming and unquestioned masculinity fantasy of Howard's Conan, I was surprised to see that Jirel of Joiry wasFamous as a woman's answer to the overwhelming and unquestioned masculinity fantasy of Howard's Conan, I was surprised to see that Jirel of Joiry was published within two years of the first Conan story. My experiences with Sword and Sorcery have been pretty dismal so far. Conan was inept and loathsome; Fafhrd was competent but loathsome; Imaro was briefly interesting in its cultural setting and racial politics but derivative of Conan's failures in the execution. Joanna Russ' Adventures of Alyx is a much later iteration of what Moore was doing--S&S with a female protagonist and a uh, woman's angle? But that book is sunk by its wild time- and genre-hopping and a frustratingly vague narrative voice. I didn't have super high hopes that Jirel would be much better, but I paid $3 for the ebook to check and make sure. (The one classic S&S book I genuinely enjoyed, Delany's Neveryon, basically guts the genre and uses it as a vehicle for postmodern musings and anthropology.)
I was not wrong. This is not a very good book by contemporary standards. It suffers from a classic early-fantasy novel problem: it's a portal fantasy, and the secondary world is described more than interacted with, as if the author is looking at a series of landscape images and trying to get across what they look like rather than telling a real story. That problem is compounded by its weird horror ambitions. Moore takes Conan's Lovecraft-lite space aliens and snake gods and explodes them to occupy most of the story. In the execution, she relies heavily on the classic Weird Horror boilerplate language. Everything is "strange" or "inhuman" or otherwise beyond description. Between the ineffective landscape depictions and these non-descriptions, there's not much to go on.
The opening of the first story makes it quite clear that, for all Moore's representational goals, feminism meant something different when she was writing. Jirel trades masculine bluster for feminine emotional wrangling almost completely. Let me just sketch out this first arc: Jirel is the warrior knight Lady in charge of Joiry, a castle that has been successfully attacked and taken by Guillame the conqueror. Guillame is Jirel's nemesis, and now that he's won he's an insufferable prick. In the first scene, he forces a kiss on her; she bites him on the neck, and her loathing for him burns hotter than ever. Then she escapes from the dungeon and enters a tunnel to a place worse than hell, looking for a weapon strong enough to destroy Guillame.
A bit clumsy, but I was on board when it seemed like Moore was interested in this scene only as a quick excuse to jump right into the demonic nightmare stuff. The tunnel does have an air of Berserk, Dore, and Dante about it, which maybe inflates expectations of what lies beyond. It's not a well-written tunnel sequence--just compare it to the shaft sequence in Annihilation and you'll see how much difference being a good writer and doing proper research makes. But it seemed like she had somewhere interesting to go with it. She didn't. Jirel gets a kiss from a black statue god (with an extremely racist illustration on the original cover, especially given the weird coercion element in the story as well) that makes her the bearer of a special alien curse I guess. Then she comes back up the tunnel and Guillame is like "hey where'd you go we were worried about you" and she gives him the kiss and he DIES in weird horror anguish. That would be bad but also kinda weird and neat if it weren't framed by the following revelation: Jirel realizes that the intense feeling she had for Guillame was not hatred but love! So she regrets killing him and reenters the demon tunnel in order to save his soul from the alien demon curse she laid on him to death.
So the first female-protagonist Sword and Sorcery novel is about a woman who is defeated by a stronger male warrior, is sexually assaulted by him, murders him with a poisoned kiss, realizes she was in love with him, and dedicates her life to saving his soul. It's definitely what you might have once conceived of as Woman's fantasy, but certainly the opposite of Feminist. Ooof. It's also just really quite badly written. ...more
Tolkien clone with a hippie commune in place of the Shire. Shite prose, hamfisted characterization, cliche dialogue, unlikable, unrelatable protagonisTolkien clone with a hippie commune in place of the Shire. Shite prose, hamfisted characterization, cliche dialogue, unlikable, unrelatable protagonist, etc. Fantasy authors should be forbidden from using the word "Fool!" most especially when writing villains (why am I reading a book with a villain in it, I thought I knew better ugh). Didn't get more than 75 pages into this and already feel like I wasted my time....more
Maybe I've just been marathoning them in the car for too long, but by the fifth Chrestomanci book I've listened to, the formula has worn thin and theMaybe I've just been marathoning them in the car for too long, but by the fifth Chrestomanci book I've listened to, the formula has worn thin and the charm worn off. While it's great that Wynne Jones manages to effectively drive her plot through realistic kid emotions and goals, she too often uses their whims to create conflict they can't handle and simply invokes Chrestomanci to resolve it all in a whirlwind of loose-end tying-up and pat delivery of just desserts. I quit Magicians 3/4s of the way through, and everything in the ending had already been heavily foreshadowed - I don't feel like I missed much at this point.
That said, Wynne Jones is still a charming, talented writer and it's an enjoyable thing to read. I'd probably have gotten more out of it if I hadn't been so tired of them when I got to it....more
After getting frustrated with how little permaculturists paid attention to real restoration science, I turned to the native gardening movement for ideAfter getting frustrated with how little permaculturists paid attention to real restoration science, I turned to the native gardening movement for ideas on how to mix human uses and habitat value. That was definitely a good idea. As an entomologist, Tallamy focuses on insects here. He discusses many of the lessons of Plant-Animal Interactions (a direction that class should have pursued), using them to explain why native plants are more ecologically beneficial even though bees may seem to prefer imported mint flowers, or rabbits prefer carrots to goldenrod. Tallamy gives some really important on how to implement this knowledge: what numbers and kinds of beetles and butterflies to expect from each native plant species, how to maintain year round nutritional surfeit for seed, insect, and berry eating birds, what they need for cover.
Ultimately I just didn't feel like reading the same stuff I was getting in Noah's Garden and many other resources one more time. But as the restoration goes on, I may come back to this book for some more ideas on insects in the forest. The chapter on insect phyla is worlds more in depth than even most restoration books go, though it's inevitably a bit encyclopedic....more